Trap-Jaw Ants and Wingless Flight

Millions of years before the Wright brothers climbed into their crappy plane, worker ants were already flying around. These ants didn’t have wings. They only had super-powered elastic jaws. Even today, these ants flip through the air, crossing distances greater than 20 times their body length. These ants are Odontomachus.

Odontomachus is hungry. Photo credit: Alex Wild

Odontomachus ants can open their jaws to 180 degrees. They use massive muscles in their head to store a remarkable amount of potential energy – and the energy sure has potential! Watch these ants in action in this video (which is required viewing):

Recently, Dr. Fred Larabee (then a grad student in the Suarez Lab, now a postdoc at the Smithsonian) discovered that this mandible-powered flight can help the ants escape predation by antlions. He explains in this video (which is also required viewing):

This trap-jaw motion by Odontomachus is even faster than mantis shrimp attacks. This is perhaps not too surprising, given that ants are superior to shrimp. In any case, it goes without saying that trap-jaw ants rank as one of the top 13,000 coolest known ants.