The lightning-fast bites of trap-jaw ants should smash their heads. Here’s why it doesn’t.

A slow-motion movie of a trap-jaw ant (Odontomachus brunneus) releasing its mandibles.
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Moving thousands of times faster than the blink of an eye, the springy jaws of an ant with trap jaws catch the insect’s prey by surprise, and at the same time, if the ants point to the ground, they can throw the ant into the air. Now, scientists have uncovered how the ant’s jaws close at blistering speeds without breaking apart from the force.

In a new study published Thursday, July 21, Journal of Experimental Biology (opens in new tab)A team of biologists and engineers studied a species of trap-jaw ant called Odontomachus brunneusIt is native to parts of the USA, Central America, and the West Indies. To build up the force for their lightning-quick bite, the ants first spread their jaws apart so they form a 180-degree angle and “cock” them against the pegs inside their heads. Enormous muscles attached to each jaw by a tendon-like cord pull the jaws in place and then flex to create a reservoir of elastic energy; The team found that this bending was so extreme that it twisted the sides of the ant’s head, causing the ants to bend inward. When the ant strikes, their jaws open and this stored energy is suddenly released and their jaws crash into each other.

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