Footage of a Saharan silver ant (Cataglyphis bombycina) running, at 44x slow motion.

A Saharan silver ant’s pace seems leisurely — but only because the footage has been slowed by a factor of 44. Credit: Sarah Pfeffer

Animal behaviour

A land-speed record for ants set in Saharan dunes

World’s fastest ants zip along at 85 centimetres per second, at times with all 6 legs off the ground at once.

Saharan silver ants have to be fast: they routinely sprint across burning desert sands in the midday heat to search for food. But now Sarah Pfeffer at Ulm University in Germany and her colleagues have shown that these tiny insects (Cataglyphis bombycina) are the fastest ants alive, attaining blistering speeds of 0.855 metres — 108 times their body length — in one second.

Video of the speedsters shows that despite having relatively short legs for desert ants, the Saharan silvers swing their legs an astonishing 47 strides a second in a smooth ‘galloping’ pattern that means the ants get all six legs off the ground at once. Precise coordination allows three legs to hit the ground nearly simultaneously, forming a stable tripod as the ant moves. Researchers suspect this stance help to prevent the ants from sinking into the dunes.

Thanks to this fancy footwork, the ants can hotfoot it across the shifting dunes — which reach temperatures of 60 ˚C at the surface — to scavenge the carcasses of less hardy insects.