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Cunning ant escapes ferocious predator

When an antlion predator stalks its insect prey, the prospects of survival can be grim. They dig cone-shaped pits in the sand so that small arthropods, such as ants, fall in.

The antlions will then grab these unsuspecting victims and drag them further underground.

But the trap-jaw ant has a cunning technique at its disposal. It will often catapult itself away from predators using its mouth, according to a new study published in journal Plos One.

The incredible mandible of a trap-jaw ant has been known about for over a 100 years. It can spring shut at speeds of about 40-60 metres per second (over 100 miles per hour at its fastest). It's thought to be one of the fastest movements in the animal kingdom.

When they strike a hard surface such as the ground with their speedy jaws, the impact hurls their bodies into the air.

This incredible behaviour was caught in the high-speed video above. It shows a trap-jaw ant snapping its jaws after being caught by an antlion. After striking the sand, the ant jumps completely out of the pit.

While they usually use their jaws to catch predators or tend to their larvae. It's now clear they have adapted this skill to use it for escaping predators such as an antlion.

You can see why this is necessary, the video below shows an antlion dragging an ant further into the sand after it has stumbled into a make-shift pit.

"It was never clear whether this was an intentional behaviour or an accidental by-product of using so much energy with their jaws and striking a hard surface," says lead author of the study Fredrick Larabee of the University of Illinois, US.

By luring trap-jaw ants into a cone shaped sandy pit, Larabee and colleagues were able to witness their incredible mouths in action.

Half of the time, the ant would simply run away, but 15% of the time they used their mouths to spring away.

To see just how much this skill helped them escape, they glued the ants' mouths shut with glue and found that it cut their survival rate in half.

"It puts a nice little bow on the story [of these ants]. Behaviour that's evolved for one purpose can be co-opted for other purposes over evolutionary time, in this case for a defensive mechanism to escape from predators," Larabee told BBC Earth.

 

-by Melissa Hogenboom