Numerous non-flying arboreal vertebrates use controlled descent (either parachuting or gliding sensu stricto1,2) 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).
The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.
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. (MPG 1776 kb)
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. (MPG 1275 kb)
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). (MPG 1656 kb)
This file provides additional background, methods and statistical results related to field experiments. (DOC 35 kb)
This figure supports the Supplementary Methods and shows the relationship used to estimate C. atratus worker mass from head width in the field. (DOC 32 kb)
This table lists the arboreal ant taxa that have been tested for directed aerial descent behaviour. (DOC 33 kb)
This table provides basic information about the trees used in the study. (DOC 71 kb)
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Yanoviak, S., Dudley, R. & Kaspari, M. Directed aerial descent in canopy ants. Nature 433, 624–626 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature03254
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