The Blistering Speed of the World's Fastest Ants
According to Noël Coward, mad dogs and Englishmen are the only creatures that go out in the midday sun, but Harald Wolf from the University of Ulm, Germany, would add another animal: Saharan silver ants (Cataglyphis bombycina).
These are Saharan silver ant (Cataglyphis bombycina) workers in the desert at Douz, Tunisia.
Pfeffer recalls that locating the inconspicuous nests was far from easy: ‘We had to look for digging ants or follow a foraging ant back home’, she explains. However, once the team had located a nest, it was simply a matter of connecting an aluminium channel to the entrance and placing a feeder at the end to lure the ants out. ‘After the ants have found the food – they love mealworms – they shuttle back and forth in the channel and we mounted our camera to film them from the top’, smiles Pfeffer. In addition, the team excavated a nest, returning with it to Germany, to record the insects running more slowly at cooler temperatures.
Calculating the insects’ top speeds, Pfeffer and Wahl were impressed to find the animals hit an extraordinary 0.855m/s (that is, 855mm/s or 108 times their own body length per second) during the hottest part of the desert day, falling to 0.057m/s at 10°C in the lab. In contrast, larger Cataglyphis fortis only get up to 0.62m/s (only 50body lengths/s), making C. bombycina the world’s fastest ant and placing them close to the top of the list of world record-breaking creatures, alongside Australian tiger beetles (171body lengths/s) and California coastal mites (377body lengths/s).
The scientists also compared the leg lengths of the two species and it was evident that the swift silver ants are doing something remarkable. Their limbs are almost 20% shorter than those of their leggier cousins. Wondering how the smaller ants outstrip their larger Cataglyphis relatives, the team focused on the ants’ footwork.
Analysing the silver ant’s manoeuvres, the team realised that the insects were swinging their 4.3-6.8mm long legs at speeds of up to 1300mm/s, taking up to 47strides/s – around a third faster than their larger relatives. And when they scrutinised the ants’ stride lengths, they quadrupled from 4.7mm to 20.8mm as the ants shifted up through the gears. The team also discovered that instead of simply running, the ants switched to a gallop, with all six feet off the ground simultaneously at speeds above 0.3m/s.
‘These features may be related to the sand dune habitat’, says Wolf, adding, ‘[they] could prevent the animal’s feet from sinking too deeply into the soft sand’. He is also keen to find out more about how these desert dwellers pull off their high-speed feats, which he suspects must require muscle contraction speeds close to physiological limits.
Contacts and sources:
Citation: Pfeffer, S. E., Wahl, V. L., Wittlinger, M. and Wolf, H. (2019). High-speed locomotion in the Saharan silver ant, Cataglyphis bombycina. Journal of Experimental Biology 222, jeb198705 https://jeb.biologists.org/content/222/20/jeb198705
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