Jumping with your jaws is NOT normal in the animal kingdom, but these ants are amazing at it

Trap-jaw ant’s are ants that use their
jaws for capturing prey, for fighting other ants, launching themselves in the
air literally jumping with their jaws. Jumping with jaws is not a normal thing
in biology, that is for sure. I can’t think of anything else that jumps with their jaws. The ants have to store up energy in their head or some other elastic structure, and then release this energy when they release the latch and the jaws slam closed. Trap-jaw ants produce the highest
acceleration ever recorded in an animal of that size. Trap-jaw ants are accelerating their jaws an order of magnitude more than a bullet in a gun. I work right at the interface of physics
and evolution in a field called biomechanics. A large focus of my labs
research right now is on systems that use power amplification, which means that they’re performing the motions with springs and using latches to generate
very powerful movement. We’ve filmed trap-jaw ants at over a hundred thousand frames per second. In regular daily time the ant is on the ground and then you can’t find it. But when you put a high-speed video on it what came out was this ant slowly positioning its head against the ground. And the next thing you know there’s an ant slowly spinning through the air and the most improbable
parabola of motion. At one level I can tell you how they’re able to do it. On another level I can say we don’t really understand yet. Zeynep Temel is a mechanical engineer.
She works on engineering fabrication and principles and pushing the limits often
with an eye towards biology. We have been working together for a little bit more than two years. The ultimate goal is to understand the behavior of the trap-jaw ants better, but as an engineer what I’m interested in is if I can use this motion in potential applications. Microrobots come across a lot of
obstacles during their motion so jumping is a very good way to overcome the
obstacles especially when they are stuck. At the moment we have a prototype
inspired by the trap-jaw ants. And when I first started designing the synthetic ant head I used both CT scans and video images from Patek lab. In order to manufacture robots that small we cannot use groups we cannot use not screws, we cannot use nuts, bolts… they’re all out of questions because they are all very big for the scale of
our robots. In order to solve that problem we use origami inspired folding techniques to manufacture our robots. You have to be patient and you have to have steel hands in order to assemble it. In my mechanism I have two mandibles
that sit on the latch. When I start applying heat the mandibles start rotate and applying a force on the latch and the latch can only hold mandibles up to a
certain point. Yes. That little thing right there is a latch? Yeah, there. That is crazy. It is very tiny. it’s a little bit difficult to put it in. When Zeynep came in and was
looking at the trap-jaw ant morphology she pointed out things that didn’t make
sense to her that we hadn’t even thought about his biologists. Zeynep worked a really long time to build a physical model that matched what the literature
says about how the latch works in ants and she couldn’t do it. It just didn’t
work right. So she went and used a different latch in her model. We’re realizing that maybe we’ve actually misunderstood it all this time and in
fact the latch and trap-jaw ants probably works a lot more like the one
that she realized would work in this case. One of our basic questions is is
this an efficient way to jump? We’re working very hard on trying to
figure out how elastic energy is stored in the head and released. Zeynep’s model provides a phenomenal way of looking at that energy delivery to
the system. We were so focused on the jaws closing and filming that
extraordinary movement that we never thought to look at the head. We started to realize there had to be a spring somewhere. we just had kind of had to shift where
we were filming and slow down the frame rate. All of a sudden this crazy motion
showed up. The entire sides of the head of the ant squash in. We basically blow
on the ant or do something to stimulate it to load its jaws and then you’ll see
the head just start to flex. Oh they do. Besides bowing in the whole head
like getting shorter as it’s flexing and then we can measure that motion and
measure the shape changes and start to learn about three-dimensional springs. We don’t normally think of a three-dimensional geometry being used to store elastic energy. Yeah you can really see how she compressed the sides of her head in are all squeezed in and the top of her head… The trap-jaw ants are giving us insights into a more diverse set of design principles for
storing elastic energy. What I feel is unique about this collaboration is how close we work together. It’s a very rich and tight connection between biology and
engineering. There are things that we cannot do with real animals. We cannot actually cut the mandibles off the trap-jaw ants and so that they have shorter mandibles and see what happens. But we can do this with our robots and we can learn trap-jaw ants have the mandibles at that size or at that shape or how
much energy we need in order to perform a specific jump height for example. So these are the things that we can learn by studying our bio-inspired
mechanisms There is a broader piece of this, which
is the joy and value of knowledge. This kind of work is literally about
technology yes but it’s also about the joy of being a biological system
ourselves. Of understanding the planet we live on. There there is such value in
just that.

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