Dracula ant striking a termite

A Dracula ant uses its record-setting mandibles — the pincer-like appendages on its face — to body slam a termite. Credit: Ant Lab

Animal behaviour

Dracula ant’s powerful pincers snap shut at record speed

Fangs are feeble next to the fastest appendages in the animal world.

An insect dubbed the Dracula ant is a speed champion among animals: it snaps its front pincers shut in less than 1/5,000 of the time it takes to blink.

Trap-jaw ants (Odontomachus), mantis shrimp and other creatures have evolved appendages that move with lightning swiftness. These species achieve high speeds using a spring-loaded system similar to a catapult. But Dracula ants — in the genus Mystrium, and so called because they sometimes feed on the blood of their young — press their two front pincers together before slipping them past each other like a finger snap.

Fredrick Larabee at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and colleagues investigated this mechanism using computer models and high-speed videos. The researchers found that the ant’s front appendages, unlike those of most other ants, can bow inwards when the pincer tips press against each other, generating a spring-like tension. When one pincer slips under the other, this tension releases, propelling the pincers shut at 90 metres per second — faster than a bullet train, and the fastest-known speed for an animal appendage.