To watch an ant slowly angle its head toward the ground and then disappear with what seems to be a fleeting snap of its jaws, is to witness one of the fastest recorded biological movements on the planet: a mandible-strike of a trap-jaw ant. The fastest motions are not generated by cheetahs (65 mph), the blink of an eye (0.3 s) or an escaping fish (10 g’s); instead, they occur in small, obscure creatures that have harnessed three challenges in physics and engineering: (i) extreme acceleration (ii) at small length and mass scales, and with (iii) repeatable and efficient use throughout the life of the organism.
Work in the Patek laboratory has established the outer extremes of fast movement, including the fastest-described systems that can be used repeatedly (mantis shrimp, trap-jaw ants, and amphipods), and we have examined the principles and performance of a diverse array of many other small, fast systems. Only a handful of labs around the world have the imaging capability to measure these movements: state-of-the art locomotion labs film at 500-5000 frames per second (fps), whereas our fast systems require imaging from 20,000-300,000 fps. Consequently, small, fast systems exemplify the realm of discovery science. We have relentlessly pursued core physical principles while leveraging fast systems to investigate how physics interfaces with evolutionary diversification. We have succeeded in establishing a conceptual, mathematical, evolutionary and interdisciplinary framework, such that this emerging field is now in the growth phase.
The fastest biological movements were once generally thought to have evolved for predator-prey pursuits, like the cheetah’s spectacular running abilities or the sprints of swimming fish. However, as each new ultrafast system was measured or compiled, we have established that organisms use ultrafast movement for puncture (Anderson, et al., 2016, Interface Focus; deVries et al, 2012, J. Exp. Biol.), fracture (Patek and Caldwell, 2005, J. Exp. Biol.; Patek, et al., 2004, Nature), impact (Patek, et al., 2006, Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci.; Spagna, et al., 2008, J. Exp. Biol.), dispersal (Liu, et al., 2017, J. Roy. Soc. Interface; Pringle, et al., 2005, Mycologia), and even sparring (Green and Patek, 2015, Biology Letters; Green and Patek, 2018, Proc. Royal Society B: Biol. Sci.) – a remarkable array of uses far greater than originally recognized.