Meet the trap-jaw ant. This gnarly family of ants has massive mandibles which can open up to 180 degrees. These jaws are coated in tiny, extremely sensitive hairs, which allow the ants to snap their jaws closed faster than their brains can even process the movement (some claim they are the fastest jaws in the world).
These formidable ants have another amazing (but rather scary) ability: when threatened, they snap their powerful jaws against the ground, creating a massive amount of force which shoots them upwards like a piece of popcorn.
With painful stingers attached to their abdomens, being surrounded by a bunch of these jumping ants could be a very unpleasant experience.
“They look like little hammerhead sharks walking around,”
said D. Magdalena Sorger, a scientist who has been studying these insects as part of her PhD research at North Carolina State University.
There are four species of trap-jaw ants native to the U.S., but Sorger’s research has focused on a particularly aggressive species of trap-jaw ants that originated in South America.
This invasive species of trap-jaw ant, known as Odontomachus haematodus, has actually been living in the States for around 50 years now, but studies have shown that the ant has been rapidly spreading along the Gulf Coast in recent years.
Why are they only spreading now? Sorger isn’t sure yet, but suggests that they were either building up their numbers before spreading, or that changes in climate have allowed them to inhabit a wider range.
So, should we be worried about a trap-jaw ant takeover? That’s pretty unlikely, according to invasive ant specialist Andrew Suarez. He points out that unlike other invasive ants (like fire ants, for example), these South American trap-jaw ants,
”don’t have colonies with tens to hundreds of thousands of workers that can overwhelm the local fauna.”
He does point out that their sting is particularly painful however, and that some people may be allergic to the venom.
Read the original story from National Geographic here.
Feature image courtesy of Alexander Wild.