Thursday, July 06, 2006

Origins of Flight,
Mean Ways to Fight

Besides leaf cutter ants, we’ve been introduced some of the, ahem, totally cool biomechanics of certain ant species. For instance, Robert Dudley from UC Berkeley gave us a lecture on flight mechanics. That’s right: flying ants. Think about it: arboreal ants (them that live in trees) can easily fall long distances from the branches of canopy and when they do, will they fall to their deaths or will they have evolved the ability to control their decent. Indeed, flying hind legs first many ant species not only control their decent but effectively steer a landing on the truck of the tree from which they fell and simply walk back up the tree to resume their activities. Wow. A collaborator has video footage of the gliding ants at this site. Such controlled decent is found in many species and researchers now hypothesize that the origins of flight began not from the ground up but instead from the high branch down. The hazard of falling from trees thus may have spawned the evolution of flight.

Our own Andy Suarez, who happens to be a lot of fun, has done some interesting research into another area of ant biomechanics: "trap jaw" ants. These are ants that sport huge mandibles spring loaded to close at a rate of 50-60 meters/second. That's the fastest motion known in nature. Trap jaw morphology as evolved at least five times in ants, the most famous being the genus Odontomachus. Not only used to capture and crush absolutely helpless prey, trap jaw ants have been shown to use their unique abilities to escape attack. An ant in despiration will place their mandibles against the ground and fire the release which, because of the enormous force in comparison to their body weight, hurles them into the air and, if all goes well, out of harms way. Andy showed us some truly amazing slow motion video of this last phemonmeon. His collaborator's web page has more infomation if your interest is peaked.