Patek Lab graduate student, Justin Jorge, led a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, entitled “Pendulum-based measurements reveal impact dynamics at the scale of a trap-jaw ant”. This study establishes a new technical approach using two tiny pendulums mounted on frictionless air-bearings to measure the energetic exchange of brief, high acceleration impacts of tiny animals in diverse environments. This study focused on the extremely high acceleration strikes of trap-jaw ants which slam their mandibles against diverse targets including squishy insect cuticle, hard insect exoskeletons, large rocks, or even complex substrates like sand during mandible-powered jumps.
Jorge, J.F., S. Bergbreiter, and S. N. Patek. 2021. Pendulum-based measurements reveal impact dynamics at the scale of a trap-jaw ant. Journal of Experimental Biology 224 (5): jeb232157
Small organisms can produce powerful, sub-millisecond impacts by moving tiny structures at high accelerations. We developed and validated a pendulum device to measure the impact energetics of microgram-sized trap-jaw ant mandibles accelerated against targets at 105 m s−2. Trap-jaw ants (Odontomachus brunneus; 19 individuals, 212 strikes) were suspended on one pendulum and struck swappable targets that were either attached to an opposing pendulum or fixed in place. Mean post-impact kinetic energy (energy from a strike converted to pendulum motion) was higher with a stiff target (21.0–21.5 µJ) than with a compliant target (6.4–6.5 µJ). Target mobility had relatively little influence on energy transfer. Mean contact duration of strikes against stiff targets was shorter (3.9–4.5 ms) than against compliant targets (6.2–7.9 ms). Shorter contact duration was correlated with higher post-impact kinetic energy. These findings contextualize and provide an energetic explanation for the diverse, natural uses of trap-jaw ant strikes such as impaling prey, launching away threats and performing mandible-powered jumps. The strong effect of target material on energetic exchange suggests material interactions as an avenue for tuning performance of small, high acceleration impacts. Our device offers a foundation for novel research into the ecomechanics and evolution of tiny biological impacts and their application in synthetic systems.