A slow-motion movie of a trap-jaw ant (Odontomachus brunneus) releasing its mandibles.

Trap-jaw ants’ lightning-fast bite should rip their heads apart. Here’s why it doesn’t.

Moving at speeds thousands of times faster than the blink of an eye, the spring-loaded jaws of a trap-jaw ant catch the insect’s prey by surprise and can also launch the ant into the air if it aims its chompers at the ground. Now, scientists have revealed how the ant’s jaws can snap closed at blistering speeds without shattering from the force.

In a new study, published Thursday (July 21) in the Journal of Experimental Biology (opens in new tab)a team of biologists and engineers studied a species of trap-jaw ant called Odontomachus brunneus, native to parts of the US, Central America and the West Indies. To build up power for their lightning-fast bites, the ants first stretch their jaws apart, so they form a 180 degree angle, and “cock” them against latches inside their heads. Enormous muscles, attached to each jaw by a tendon-like cord, pull the jaws into place and then flex to build up a store of elastic energy; this flexion is so extreme that it warps the sides of the ant’s head, causing them to bow inward, the team found. When the ant strikes, its jaws unlatch and that stored energy gets released at once, sending the jaws smashing together.

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