Letter | Published:

Directed aerial descent in canopy ants

Nature volume 433, pages 624626 (10 February 2005) | Download Citation



Numerous non-flying arboreal vertebrates use controlled descent (either parachuting or gliding sensu stricto 1,2) to avoid predation or to locate resources3,4,5,6,7, and directional control during a jump or fall is thought to be an important stage in the evolution of flight3,8,9. Here we show that workers of the neotropical ant Cephalotes atratus L. (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) use directed aerial descent to return to their home tree trunk with >80% success during a fall. Videotaped falls reveal that C. atratus workers descend abdomen-first through steep glide trajectories at relatively high velocities; a field experiment shows that falling ants use visual cues to locate tree trunks before they hit the forest floor. Smaller workers of C. atratus, and smaller species of Cephalotes more generally, regain contact with their associated tree trunk over shorter vertical distances than do larger workers. Surveys of common arboreal ants suggest that directed descent occurs in most species of the tribe Cephalotini and arboreal Pseudomyrmecinae, but not in arboreal ponerimorphs or Dolichoderinae. This is the first study to document the mechanics and ecological relevance of this form of locomotion in the Earth's most diverse lineage, the insects.

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We thank B. Fisher, B. Hölldobler, J. T. Longino, S. Combes, G. Byrnes, W. Lamar, J. B. Gonzáles and C. Saux for helpful discussions, logistical support, and/or comments on the manuscript. J. T. Longino, W. P. Mackay and P. S. Ward assisted with ant identifications. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Panamanian National Authority for the Environment (ANAM), and the Peruvian National Institute of Natural Resources (INRENA) provided permits. This project was supported in part by NSF grants to M.K. and an NIH grant to S. C. Weaver (UTMB).

Author information


  1. University of Texas Medical Branch, 301 University Boulevard, Galveston, Texas 77555, USA

    • Stephen. P. Yanoviak
  2. University of Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory, 200 9th Street SE, Vero Beach, Florida 32962, USA

    • Stephen. P. Yanoviak
  3. Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • Robert Dudley
  4. Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, PO Box 2072, Balboa, Republic of Panama

    • Robert Dudley
    •  & Michael Kaspari
  5. Department of Zoology, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma 73019, USA

    • Michael Kaspari


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Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael Kaspari.

Supplementary information


  1. 1.

    Supplementary Video 1

    This video shows an individual worker C. atratus dropped from 30 m height and 3.3 m horizontal distance from the trunk in tree 25 (Supplementary Table 2). The abdomen and hind legs of the ant were painted white, showing the rapid alignment with the trunk and backward glide.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Video 2

    This video shows an individual worker C. atratus painted white and dropped from 25 m height and 2.5 m horizontal distance from the trunk in tree 24 (Supplementary Table 2). The pink flag hanging next to the trunk marks 9.0 m vertical drop distance.

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Video 3

    This video shows an individual worker C. atratus painted white and dropped from 25 m height and 2.0 m horizontal distance from the trunk in tree 18 (Supplementary Table 2).

Word documents

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Methods

    This file provides additional background, methods and statistical results related to field experiments.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Figure 1

    This figure supports the Supplementary Methods and shows the relationship used to estimate C. atratus worker mass from head width in the field.

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Table 1

    This table lists the arboreal ant taxa that have been tested for directed aerial descent behaviour.

  4. 4.

    Supplementary Table 2

    This table provides basic information about the trees used in the study.

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