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The evolution and functional morphology of trap-jaw ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)

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We review the biology of trap-jaw ants whose highly specialized mandibles generate extreme speeds and forces for predation and defense. Trap-jaw ants are characterized by elongated, power-amplified mandibles and use a combination of latches and springs to generate some of the fastest animal movements ever recorded. Remarkably, trap jaws have evolved at least four times in three subfamilies of ants. In this review, we discuss what is currently known about the evolution, morphology, kinematics, and behavior of trap-jaw ants, with special attention to the similarities and key differences among the independent lineages. We also highlight gaps in our knowledge and provide suggestions for future research on this notable group of ants.
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Myrmecological News 20 25-36 Online Earlier, for print 2014
The evolution and functional morphology of trap-jaw ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)
Fredrick J. LARABEE & Andrew V. SUAREZ
Abstract
We review the biology of trap-jaw ants whose highly specialized mandibles generate extreme speeds and forces for
predation and defense. Trap-jaw ants are characterized by elongated, power-amplified mandibles and use a combination of
latches and springs to generate some of the fastest animal movements ever recorded. Remarkably, trap jaws have
evolved at least four times in three subfamilies of ants. In this review, we discuss what is currently known about the
evolution, morphology, kinematics, and behavior of trap-jaw ants, with special attention to the similarities and key dif-
ferences among the independent lineages. We also highlight gaps in our knowledge and provide suggestions for future
research on this notable group of ants.
Key words: Review, trap-jaw ants, functional morphology, biomechanics, Odontomachus, Anochetus, Myrmoteras,
Dacetini.
Myrmecol. News 20: 25-36 (online xxx 2014)
ISSN 1994-4136 (print), ISSN 1997-3500 (online)
Received 2 September 2013; revision received 17 December 2013; accepted 22 January 2014
Subject Editor: Herbert Zettel
Fredrick J. Larabee (contact author), Department of Entomology, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 320
Morrill Hall, 505 S. Goodwin Ave., Urbana, IL 61801, USA; Department of Entomology, National Museum of Natural
History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20013-7012, USA. E-mail: larabee@life.illinois.edu
Andrew V. Suarez, Department of Entomology and Program in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology, Univer-
sity of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 320 Morrill Hall, 505 S. Goodwin Ave., Urbana, IL 61801, USA.
E-mail: avsuarez@life.illinois.edu
Introduction
Mandibles are critical to the biology of ants, being the pri-
mary structures they use to physically interact with their en-
vironment during activities like foraging, predation, food
processing, defense, nest excavation, and brood care (HÖLL-
DOBLER & WILSON 1990, LACH & al. 2009). Although
these essential functions constrain their morphology, ant
mandibles display a remarkable amount of diversity, with
elaborate examples of specialization including the pitch-
forks of Thaumatomyrmex, the sickles of Polyergus, the
hooks of Eciton soldiers, and the vampiric fangs of Am-
blyopone (see WHEELER 1927, GOTWALD 1969, HÖLLDOB-
LER & WILSON 1990). One of the most extreme specia-
lizations of ant mandibles can be found among trap-jaw
ants, whose long, linear, spring-loaded mandibles snap shut
at some of the fastest speeds ever recorded for an animal
movement (PATEK & al. 2006). Remarkably, the trap-jaw
morphology has independently evolved at least four times
across the ant tree of life. Each lineage of trap-jaw ant has
converged on a common catapult mechanism for mandible
closure, but collectively they display a great amount of di-
versity in body size, diet, nesting habits, and foraging strat-
egies (Fig. 1).
While trap-jaw ants are frequently cited in reviews on
animal speed or ant predation (PATEK & al. 2011, CERDÁ &
DEJEAN 2011, HIGHAM & IRSCHICK 2013), there has never
been an attempt to summarize their overall biology. The
purpose of this review is to synthesize the literature on trap-
jaw ant biology, especially focusing on their evolution
and biomechanics, and the behavioral consequences of
having trap jaws. We limit our discussion to those ants
whose mandibles insert close to the midline of the head and
use a catapult mechanism to shut their mandibles from an
open position. Consequently, we exclude from this review
"snapping ants" (for example the genera Mystrium and Plec-
troctena), which also have power-amplified mandibles but
shut their widely set mandibles from a closed position, snap-
ping them past each other (MOFFETT 1986a, GRONENBERG
& al. 1998, DEJEAN & al. 2002). We also omit discussion
of ants with linear mandibles that are not power-amplified,
such as the genera Harpegnathos or Myrmecia, because
their rapid mandible movements are the result of direct
muscle action (PAUL 2001). Because of their small size
and cryptic habits, less is known about the biology of trap-
jaw ants from the Myrmicinae and Formicinae relative to
the larger species in the subfamily Ponerinae. Consequent-
ly, much of this review will focus on the genus Odonto-
machus, where more information is available on their func-
tional morphology, foraging behavior, and systematics.
Taxonomy and systematics
The term "trap-jaw ant" does not describe a monophyletic
taxon. CREIGHTON (1930) used it to discuss how several dis-
tantly related lineages of ants have converged to possess
long, linear mandibles whose rapid closure results from the
26
release of a latch mechanism and is triggered by long hair-
like cuticular mechanoreceptors ("trigger hairs"). This trap-
jaw condition has evolved once each in the subfamilies
Ponerinae (Anochetus and Odontomachus) and Formicinae
(Myrmoteras), and at least twice in the subfamily Myrmi-
cinae (tribe Dacetini) (Fig. 2). Trap jaws may have also
evolved in other lineages, including Protalaridris armata
in the myrmicine tribe Basicerotini and the fossil genus
Haidomyrmex (see BARDEN & GRIMALDI 2012). Without
detailed studies of their functional morphology or beha-
vior, however, it is difficult to confidently define these
groups as trap-jaw ants, and so we do not include them in
this review.
Subfamily Ponerinae: Two ponerine genera possess
trap-jaw mandibles: Anochetus and Odontomachus, con-
taining 110 and 69 extant species, respectively (BOLTON
2013). These genera are distributed worldwide in the tro-
pics and subtropics but are most diverse in the Neotro-
pics and South East Asia (BROWN 1976). The last world-
wide revision was by BROWN (1976, 1977, 1978), but a
number of recent studies have described new species and
clarified the taxonomy of these genera in specific regions
(DEYRUP & al. 1985, DEYRUP & COVER 2004, FISHER &
SMITH 2008, SORGER & ZETTEL 2011, SHATTUCK &
SLIPINSKA 2012, ZETTEL 2012). Like other ponerines
(PEETERS 1997, SCHMIDT 2013), they display a suite of
characteristics that are often considered ancestral in ants,
including small colony size, monomorphic workers, little
differentiation between the workers and queen, and soli-
tary foraging (BROWN 1976, 1978). The body size of An-
ochetus is generally much smaller than Odontomachus,
although there is some overlap. Within and between gene-
ra, nesting preferences vary widely, including soil, leaf lit-
ter, rotten logs, and even the canopy (RAIMUNDO & al.
2009, CERQUERA & TSCHINKEL 2010, SHATTUCK & SLI-
PINSKA 2012, CARMAGO & OLIVEIRA 2012).
Molecular phylogenetics strongly supports grouping
the clade containing Odontomachus and Anochetus in the
Odontomachus genus group, one of several large multi-
generic clades found in the Ponerinae (SCHMIDT 2013).
Other genera in the group include Leptogenys, Odonto-
ponera, Phrynoponera, and a number of Pachycondyla
"subgenera", but it is still unclear which of these is sister to
the ponerine trap-jaw ants. Molecular divergence dating
estimated that the Odontomachus group rapidly radiated
between 50 and 45 million years ago, with the trap-jaw
clade arising somewhat more recently (approximately 30
million years ago). Nine fossil species of Anochetus and
three of Odontomachus have been described, mostly from
Dominican Amber (but one compression fossil of Odonto-
machus from the Most Basin, WAPPLER & al. 2013), with
ages ranging between 23 and 19 million years (BARONI
URBANI 1980, MACKAY 1991, DE ANDRADE 1994).
Most recent morphological and molecular phylogene-
tic studies have strongly supported monophyly for the clade
containing Anochetus and Odontomachus (see BRADY &
al. 2006, MOREAU & al. 2006, SPAGNA & al. 2008, KELLER
2011, MOREAU & BELL 2013, SCHMIDT 2013), but whether
they are monophyletic sister groups is still unclear. From
the morphology of male genitalia and petiole, BROWN
(1978) hypothesized that Odontomachus arose from within
a paraphyletic Anochetus. Data from karyotypes (SANTOS
& al. 2010) and adductor muscle morphology (GRONEN-
BERG & EHMER 1996) corroborate this scenario, with An-
ochetus possessing ancestral states of both characters. How-
ever, preliminary molecular phylogenetic analyses have
been hampered by small and unequal taxon sampling and
have been unable to reject alternative relationships, in-
cluding the two genera being exclusive sister groups, or
Odontomachus being paraphyletic with respect to Anoche-
tus (see SPAGNA & al. 2008, SCHMIDT 2009).
Subfamily Myrmicinae: The subfamily Myrmicinae
has, by far, the most species of trap-jaw ants, all current-
ly classified as members of the tribe Dacetini (which in-
cludes over 900 described species) (BOLTON 2013). Al-
though not all dacetine species are trap-jaw ants, a large
portion of the genus Strumigenys and all members of the
genera Acanthognathus, Daceton, Epopostruma, Micro-
daceton, and Orectognathus display a trap-jaw morphol-
ogy. Most of these genera are predominantly tropical or
subtropical with the genus Strumigenys being found world-
wide, Acanthognathus and Daceton limited to the Neo-
tropics, Microdaceton only found in the Afrotropics, and
Epopostruma and Orectognathus limited to Australasia
(BOLTON 1999, 2000). Dacetine mandibles are remark-
ably variable, with some species clearly displaying long
linear trap-jaw mandibles that open at least 180° (kinetic
mandibles sensu BOLTON 1999), whereas others (many
Strumigenys, and all Colobostruma and Mesostruma) have
triangular (long or short), forcep-like, or plier-like mandi-
bles that can not open beyond 60 - 90° (static mandibles
sensu BOLTON 1999). Each mandibular form is correlated
with discrete predatory modes of action (use of sting and
speed of attack) (BOLTON 1999). Despite the variation in
mandible morphology, body size, and foraging behavior,
most dacetines are relatively small bodied and form small
colonies in leaf litter or rotten logs (WILSON 1953, BOL-
TON 1999, DEYRUP & COVER 2009). They can often be lo-
cally abundant and it is difficult to find a Berlese or Wink-
ler sample of tropical forest leaf litter that does not con-
tain at least one dacetine species (WARD 2000).
It is beyond the scope of this review to thoroughly cover
the taxonomic history of the Dacetini, but to say that the
generic classification of the tribe is unstable is an under-
statement (BARONI URBANI & DE ANDRADE 2006a, b, BOL-
TON 2006a, b). Early generic and species-level revisions
were conducted by BROWN (1948, 1953, 1961, 1962, and
containing references) and BROWN & KEMPF (1969). More
recent studies by BARONI URBANI & DE ANDRADE (1994,
2007) and BOLTON (1983, 1998, 1999, 2000), based on
extensive comparative morphology, attempted to bring or-
der to the tribe and resulted in major, and sometimes con-
tradictory, rearrangements of genus- and tribe-level groups.
Due to the quality of morphological characters used in
Fig. 1: Representative trap-jaw ant species. (a) Two species illustrating the extremes of size variation among different line-
ages: Odontomachus chelifer, in the subfamily Ponerinae, is one of the largest trap-jaw ant species, whereas Strumigenys
sp., in the subfamily Myrmicinae, is one of the smallest. (b) Anochetus faurei. (c) Odontomachus latidens. (d) Myrmoteras
iriodum. (e) Strumigenys rogeri. (f) Microdaceton sp. (g) Acanthognathus ocellatus. Images (b - g) © Alex Wild, used by
permission.
27
28
Fig. 2: A phylogeny showing the well supported relationships
of the 21 extant ant subfamilies based on MOREAU & al. (2006),
BRADY & al. (2006), and MOREAU & BELL (2013). Ant genera
with trap-jaw morphologies have evolved at least four times, once
in each of the subfamilies Ponerinae and Formicinae, and twice
in the subfamily Myrmicinae. Cladogram modified from WARD
(2009). Ant images are courtesy of AntWeb at www.antweb.org.
many of these studies, many questions remain about the
classification of dacetines and the relationships between
genera.
Given the uncertainty of Dacetini classification, it is
not surprising that the evolutionary origin of the trap-jaw
morphology within the tribe is also unclear. One possible
scenario is that the common ancestor of all dacetines was
an epigaeic trap-jaw ant from which hypogaeic short-man-
dible forms have been derived multiple times (BROWN &
WILSON 1959). Despite some support for this scenario from
a cladistic analysis of dacetine morphology (BOLTON 1999),
most recent studies favor the alternative hypothesis that
the trap-jaw morphology has evolved multiple times from
a short-mandible non-trap-jaw ancestor (BOLTON 1999,
BARONI URBANI & DE ANDRADE 2007). A recent com-
prehensive molecular phylogenetic analysis of the subfami-
ly Myrmicinae by Ward and colleagues strongly supports
Strumigenys (sensu BARONI URBANI & DE ANDRADE 2007)
as sister to the Phalacromyrmecini, rendering the tribe Da-
cetini (sensu BOLTON 2000) paraphyletic (P.S. Ward, pers.
comm.). This would reinforce the hypothesis that the trap-
jaw morphology has evolved at least two times within the
subfamily: once in Strumigenys and at least once in the re-
maining dacetine genera.
Subfamily Formicinae: The least species-rich trap-jaw
ant group is the genus Myrmoteras, with only 34 described
extant species (BOLTON 2013). A recurring theme in the
Myrmoteras literature is how rarely workers are collected
and how little is known about their general biology. The
paucity of Myrmoteras collections may partially be ex-
plained by their relatively limited distribution (South East
Asia) (AGOSTI 1992) and small nests that are primarily lo-
cated in leaf litter (MOFFETT 1986b). The majority of Myr-
moteras species (> 20) have been described over the last
three decades (MOFFETT 1985, ZETTEL & SORGER 2011,
BUI & al. 2013), as standardized methods for sampling leaf
litter arthropods have become the primary tool used to quan-
tify ant biodiversity (AGOSTI & al. 2000). With continued
efforts to intensively sample leaf litter worldwide, the like-
lihood of additional species discoveries and the opportu-
nity to study their ecology and behavior will increase.
The morphology of Myrmoteras is exceptional even
among trap-jaw ants, with long, slender, and dentate man-
dibles, large eyes, and a small head relative to other trap-
jaw ants (AGOSTI 1992). The genus is divided into two sub-
genera based on the presence of trigger hairs: Myrmoteras
and Myagroteras (see MOFFETT 1985). The subgenus My-
agroteras lacks trigger hairs on the labrum, which may
have interesting implications for its trap-jaw mechanism
and foraging behavior (see below). Early myrmecologists
easily placed Myrmoteras in its own tribe (Myrmoteratini)
(WHEELER 1922), but a combination of ancestral and de-
rived traits made the relationship of Myrmoteras to other
genera within Formicinae more difficult. Based on their
large eyes (WHEELER 1922) and simplified proventriculus
(GREGG 1954), the genus had been thought to be the rem-
nant of an early branch of the formicine tree. More recently,
AGOSTI (1992) placed them in the Formica genus-group
based on the simple form of the helcium, and molecular
phylogenetic studies have suggested they are sister to the
tribe Camponotini (BRADY & al. 2006, MOREAU & al.
2006, MOREAU & BELL 2013).
29
Tab. 1: Summary information on four independent origins of "trap-jaw" power amplified mandibles in ants. Each origin
is listed under the subfamily heading. See text for more information.
Subfamily
Genera
Number
of species
Distribution
Spring
Trigger muscle
Ponerinae
Odontomachus
Anochetus
183
New and Old World
tropics
Adductor apodeme?
Mandible adductor
Formicinae
Myrmoteras
039
South East Asia
?
?
Myrmicinae
Acanthognathus
007
New World tropics
Adductor apodeme?
Mandible adductor
Daceton
002
New World tropics
Adductor apodeme?
Labral adductor
Orectognathus
Epopostruma
Microdaceton
051
Old World tropics
?
?
Strumigenys
834
Temperate and tropics
worldwide
Adductor apodeme?
Labral adductor
Biomechanics
Animals have repeatedly evolved suites of morphological
and behavioral traits that allow them to overcome the
physical and biological constraints of muscle speed. The
record-breaking jumps of froghoppers (BURROWS 2003,
2006), the rapid predatory strikes of stomatopods (PATEK
& al. 2004, 2007), and the ballistic tongues of chameleons
(DE GROOT & VAN LEEUWEN 2004) all display movements
that are many times faster than the maximum contraction
speed of most skeletal muscles (JAMES & al. 2007). Like
each of these cases, trap-jaw ants utilize a catapult mecha-
nism that uses latches and elastic elements to amplify the
speed and power of appendage movement. In this section,
we will survey the functional morphology and kinematics
of trap-jaw ants, with an emphasis on the independently
derived strategies each lineage uses to amplify speed.
Morphology: Like in most other insects, two muscles
are primarily responsible for "normal" mandible movement
in ants: the mandible opener (abductor) and the mandible
closer (adductor) muscles (SNODGRASS 1928, CHAPMAN
1995). The mandible moves as a simple hinge, with the
closer and opener muscle attaching, respectively, to the me-
dial and lateral portion of the mandible base. The closer
muscle is the largest muscle found in ant workers and is
composed of fast (but weak) and slow (but forceful) mus-
cle fibers arranged in discrete bundles of a single fiber type
(GRONENBERG & al. 1997). Species have varying absolute
and relative amounts of each fiber type with varying angles
of attachment to the mandible via an apodeme, and these
species-specific traits often correlate with the ecological
use of the mandible (GRONENBERG & al. 1997, PAUL &
GRONENBERG 1999, PAUL 2001). In contrast, the mandible
opener muscle is much smaller and usually consists of just
a single fiber type.
Trap-jaw ants have modified the basic ant mandible plan
by inserting specialized latch, spring and trigger structures
that together enable the catapult mechanism. This mecha-
nism allows muscles to build up power over the course of
seconds and then release it in less than a millisecond (GRO-
NENBERG 1996a, PATEK & al. 2011). A latch keeps the man-
dibles open even when the mandible closer muscle contracts
(GRONENBERG 1995a, JUST & GRONENBERG 1999), allow-
ing potential energy to slowly be stored in a spring until a
specialized "trigger muscle" releases the latch and the man-
dibles shut nearly instantaneously (GRONENBERG 1995b,
JUST & GRONENBERG 1999). All trap-jaw ants use this same
basic mechanism, but the structures that comprise the in-
dividual components (the latch, spring, and trigger) vary
between lineages. An initial mechanism was proposed by
BARTH (1960) for the mandible snap of Odontomachus che-
lifer, but most of the details of trap-jaw functional mor-
phology and neurophysiology were described by GRONEN-
BERG in the 1990s (GRONENBERG & al. 1993, GRONEN-
BERG & TAUTZ 1994, GRONENBERG 1995a, b, GRONENBERG
& EHMER 1996).
In the genera Odontomachus and Anochetus the latch,
spring and trigger all derive from modifications of the
mandible joint and closer muscle (GRONENBERG 1995a,
GRONENBERG & EHMER 1996). Contraction of the mandi-
ble opener muscle moves the ventral base of the mandible
into a notch at the base of the mandible joint. This notch
acts as the latch, keeping the mandibles securely open even
when the relatively large mandible closer muscle contracts.
Contraction of the mandible closer muscle builds up po-
tential energy in a spring (GRONENBERG 1995a, b). The
anatomical structures that serve as the spring have not yet
been definitively described but are likely heavily sclero-
tized cuticular elements of the mandible, apodeme and an-
terior head capsule (GRONENBERG 1995a). To release a
strike, the small trigger muscle attached to the closer apo-
deme pulls the mandible laterally out of the notch and al-
lows the mandibles to snap shut. A comparison of Anoche-
tus and Odontomachus trigger muscle morphology led GRO-
NENBERG & EHMER (1996) to conclude that the trigger mus-
cle is derived from the mandible closer muscle. As already
noted, Anochetus are, on average, smaller than Odonto-
machus which may significantly affect the speed and ac-
celeration of their mandible strikes (see below). Other no-
table differences between these two genera include the max-
imum mandible gape in Anochetus often surpasses 180°,
in Anochetus the trigger and mandible closer muscles are
attached to their apodemes via fibers, but in Odontomachus
they are directly attached.
Reflecting their complex evolutionary history (BOLTON
2000, BARONI URBANI & DE ANDRADE 2007; P.S. Ward,
pers. comm.), dacetine trap-jaw ants display multiple pow-
er amplification mechanisms. In Daceton armigerum and
at least some Strumigenys species, the latch and trigger
are formed by modifications of the labrum (GRONENBERG
30
1996b). Lateral projections of the "T-shaped" labrum en-
gage with basimandibular processes, locking the mandi-
bles open even when the large mandible closer muscle con-
tracts. Potential energy is likely stored in cuticular elements
of the head, but, like the ponerine trap-jaw ants, the spring
has not yet been identified. The strike is released when the
trigger muscle, derived from the labral adductor, pulls the
labrum inward, disengaging from the basimandibular pro-
cess and allowing the mandibles to close (GRONENBERG
1996b).
Ants in the genus Acanthognathus have an extremely
reduced labrum (BOLTON 1999, 2000) and their mandible-
locking mechanism is completely different from other dace-
tine trap-jaw ants (DIETZ & BRANDÃO 1993, GRONENBERG
& al. 1998). In this genus, the latch is formed by long,
curved basimandibular processes. As the mandibles open,
they rotate about their longitudinal axis, which positions
the processes so that their forked apices interlock with each
other. In this position, and like in all other trap-jaw ants, the
mandible closer muscles can contract without closing the
mandibles. The trigger muscle is a distinct group of fibers
derived from the mandible closer muscle that attach only
on the dorsal and lateral sides of the "Y-shaped" mandible
closer apodeme. Because of their asymmetrical position,
contraction of the trigger muscles applies a torque to the
heavily sclerotized arm of the mandible closer apodeme.
This reverses the rotation of the mandibles, frees the basal
processes, and allows the mandibles to snap shut. Until
more information on the evolutionary history of dacetine
ants is available, it is unclear if the morphology of Acantho-
gnathus is derived from another trap-jaw mechanism like
that in Daceton or if it is an independent origin from a short-
mandible ancestor.
The mandibles of dacetine trap-jaw ants are dramati-
cally different from those of non-trap-jaw dacetines, like
some species of Strumigenys that were formerly in the ge-
nus Pyramica, and all species of Colobostruma, and Meso-
struma (see BOLTON 2000, BARONI URBANI & DE ANDRADE
2007). Short-mandible static-pressure dacetines are also
specialized predators, with large muscle-filled heads and
fast mandible strikes (see below) (MASUKO 1985), but the
functional morphology of their mandibles and muscles has
not been studied in any detail. It is unclear if they use a
power amplification mechanism different from the mech-
anism employed by trap-jaw ants, or if, like Myrmecia,
Harpegnathos, and other predatory ants with rapid man-
dibles, they rely on the direct action of fast-contracting
mandible closer muscles alone (GRONENBERG & al. 1997,
PAUL & GRONENBERG 1999).
The convergence among trap-jaw ants extends beyond
the morphological structures forming the latches, springs,
and triggers. There is also convergence in the physiology
of the trap-jaw mechanism, especially in the muscles and
neurons controlling the reflex. In every group studied, these
muscles and neurons show similar strategies for maximiz-
ing the speed of the mandible strike. The large mandible
closer muscle that directly powers the trap-jaw is made up
of tubular fibers with very long sarcomeres (5 - 11.4 μm),
which characterize slowly contracting muscles. In contrast,
the trigger muscle is composed of fibers with many short
sarcomeres (1.8 - 3.0 μm) with large core diameters (2.4 -
8 μm), evidence of fast muscles (GRONENBERG &. al 1997).
Likewise, the sensory neurons that receive stimuli from the
trigger hairs and the motor neurons that innervate the trig-
ger muscle have some of largest diameters among insects,
(GRONENBERG & TAUTZ 1994, GRONENBERG 1996b, GRO-
NENBERG & al. 1998), which reflect the incredibly fast speed
of the trap-jaw reflex.
Despite what their name implies, trigger hairs are not
solely responsible for eliciting mandible strikes. They
clearly serve a sensory function; they are physically asso-
ciated with giant sensory cells in the mandible or labrum
(depending on lineage), and mechanical stimulation of the
trigger hair results in electrophysiological signals in these
sensilla (GRONENBERG & TAUTZ 1994, GRONENBERG 1995b,
1996b, GRONENBERG & al. 1998). However workers will
often touch nestmates with their trigger hairs without eli-
citing a strike, and ablation of the hairs does not prevent
Odontomachus workers from releasing strikes (CARLIN &
GLADSTEIN 1989, unpubl.). Indeed, the Myrmoteras sub-
genus Myagroteras is defined by the complete absence of
trigger hairs, and they might use visual cues to release the
strike (MOFFETT 1985). Given the correlation between trig-
ger hair and mandible length (BOLTON 2000) and observa-
tions of workers waiting until prey touch the trigger hairs
(DEJEAN & BASHINGWA 1985, DEJEAN 1986, GRONENBERG
& al. 1998), it is likely that the ants use trigger hairs to
judge the distance of the target. A combination of factors,
including tactile and chemical signals and even the "moti-
vational state" of the ant together probably determines when
a strike will be released.
Kinematics: The speed of trap-jaw ants has been noted
by myrmecologists for decades, but it has only been re-
cently that researchers have been able to accurately mea-
sure the mandible strike speed. Early investigations relied
on phototransducers or high-speed videography (~ 400
frames per second (fps)) that could only estimate minimum
strike duration (< 0.3 ms - 2.5 ms) because the mandibles
would often shut between frames (GRONENBERG 1995a,
GRONENBERG 1996b, GRONENBERG & al. 1998). With re-
cent advances in videography, PATEK & al. (2006) were
able to film mandible strikes of O. bauri at frame rates of
50,000 fps and showed that an entire mandible snap oc-
curs within 0.13 ms (fastest 0.06 ms). These snaps had a
mean linear velocity at the tip of the mandible of 38 m·s-1
(maximum 64.3 m·s-1) and an angular velocity ranging
from 2.85 × 104 to 4.73 × 104 rad·s-1. These results rank the
mandible strikes of trap-jaw ants as one of the fastest ani-
mal movements ever recorded, comparable to the velocity
attained by the mandibles of snapping termites (Termes
panamaensis), albeit through a different mechanism (SEID
& al. 2008).
There is significant variation in mandible strike per-
formance among species, which is not surprising consid-
ering their morphological and ecological diversity. A com-
parative study of eight species of Odontomachus, covering
much of the range in body size displayed by the genus,
found that average maximum strike speed ranged from
36 m·s-1 to 49 m·s-1 and average maximum angular accele-
ration ranged from 1.3 × 109 radians / s2 to 3.9 × 109 ra-
dians / s2 (SPAGNA & al. 2008). Strike acceleration and the
estimated resulting strike force scaled negatively and po-
sitively with body size, respectively, even when account-
ing for the effects of shared ancestry. The head geometry
(head width, head length, and mandible length) of the in-
cluded species scaled isometrically with body size, provid-
31
ing the basis for predictive model of strike force based on
body size. Based on this model, large trap-jaw ants are pre-
dicted to have slow but more forceful mandible strikes
compared with smaller ants (SPAGNA & al. 2008). Other
morphological features, more directly related to mandible
function like muscle volume, angle of muscle attachment,
or spring characteristics, may more accurately predict strike
performance. Considering the tremendous amount of mor-
phological diversity within and between lineages, additi-
onal comparative studies could help generate a mathemati-
cal model relating head and mandible morphology to strike
performance and contribute to understanding the patterns
of trap-jaw morphological evolution.
Predation and other behavioral consequences of trap
jaws
The relative speed of predators and prey often determines
the outcome of their interactions. Consequently, many pre-
dators have specialized morphologies and behaviors that
increase their speed during prey capture or handling, while
many prey have evolved rapid escape mechanisms to evade
predators (ALEXANDER 2003, PATEK & al. 2011). The uni-
que morphology and record-breaking speed of trap-jaw ant
mandibles clearly mark these ants as specialized predators
(WHEELER 1900, CREIGHTON 1930), and numerous studies
have confirmed that trap jaws are fast enough to capture
insects with rapid predator escape mechanisms or chemical
defenses. However, trap-jaw mandibles can also be used
in defense or escape during interactions with competitors
or predators (CARLIN & GLADSTEIN 1989, PATEK & al.
2006). In this section we summarize what is known about
the predatory behavior of trap-jaw ants and also discuss how
their mandibles are used in defense.
Foraging and predation: Some aspects of foraging
behavior and predation sequence display similarities across
all trap-jaw ant lineages and these may reflect further lay-
ers of convergence beyond just the morphology of the trap-
jaw. With the exception of Daceton armigerum (see HÖLL-
DOBLER & al. 1990, DEJEAN & al. 2012), workers are not
known to recruit nestmates to food sources, but some spe-
cies of Odontomachus display a simple recruitment beha-
vior, increasing forager activity when food is successfully
returned to the nest (EHMER & HÖLLDOBLER 1995, MOF-
FETT 1986b). With the high speed and force generated by
their mandibles, foragers of all trap-jaw species are effi-
cient, if solitary, predators. Foragers search for prey hapha-
zardly on the forest floor, in leaf-litter, in rotting wood, or
even in the canopy (WILSON 1953, WILSON 1962, EHMER
& HÖLLDOBLER 1995, RAIMUNDO & al. 2009, CARMARGO
& OLIVEIRA 2012, DEJEAN & al. 2012), usually with their
mandibles in an open position, presumably in anticipation
of striking prey. After detecting prey with their antennae,
foragers approach with varying speed, depending on spe-
cies, but all trap-jaw species appear to use their trigger hairs
to position their prey in striking range of the apical teeth of
their mandibles. After striking, often multiple times, fora-
gers may also sting struggling prey before carrying it back
to the nest (DE LA MORA & al. 2008, SPAGNA & al. 2009).
The role vision plays in the predation sequence varies
among trap-jaw ant lineages. Many of the dacetines, for
example, are cryptobiotic and have reduced or missing eyes,
instead relying on olfactory and tactile cues to find prey
(DEJEAN 1986, GRONENBERG 1996b). There is some evi-
dence that larger species, however, have a great deal of vi-
sual acuity. Workers of Odontomachus ruginodis use their
eyes to detect prey from a distance, but rely on their an-
tennae and trigger hairs to successfully aim strikes at near-
by prey items (CARLIN & GLADSTEIN 1989). With their re-
latively large eyes, Myrmoteras workers likely use visual
cues to detect, localize and catch prey, but their visual abi-
lities have not been studied in detail (MOFFETT 1986b).
Interestingly, the subgenus Myrmoteras (Myagroteras) lacks
trigger hairs, and may use their eyes for detection, locali-
zation, and even for release of the strike. These ants were
found to most commonly catch small non-springtail arthro-
pods, which may indicate that relying solely on vision may
limit the speed of prey that they can catch (MOFFETT 1986b).
There is considerable variation in prey type captured
and degree of diet specialization displayed among trap-jaw
ant genera. The mandibles of small trap-jaw ants (dacetines
and formicines) are fast enough to capture springtails (Col-
lembola), minute leaf-litter dwelling hexapods whose rapid
predator escape jumps can occur in less than a millisecond
(CHRISTIAN 1978). Field observations and cafeteria experi-
ments have demonstrated that many species of Strumigenys,
Myrmoteras, Microdaceton, and, possibly Acanthognathus
feed mainly on entomobryid and isotomid springtails; how-
ever, these and other dacetine species will also accept other
small-bodied litter arthropods (WILSON 1953, BROWN &
WILSON 1959, BROWN & KEMPF 1969, MOFFETT 1986b,
DIETZ & BRANDÃO 1993, BOLTON 1999, BOLTON 2000).
The arboreal Daceton armigerum, which is much larger
than other myrmicine trap-jaw ants, feeds on a variety of
arthropods and will also tend honeydew-excreting insects
(BROWN & WILSON 1959, WILSON 1962, DEJEAN & al.
2012). Foragers of the polymorphic myrmicine Orectogna-
thus versicolor will also accept a wide variety of food items
(CARLIN 1981).
The larger ponerine trap-jaw species are also active pre-
dators, however there are several differences in their pre-
dation sequence and prey preferences relative to smaller
trap-jaw ants. In general, Odontomachus foragers do not
approach prey as slowly as smaller species (CREIGTON
1937), in some species forgoing antennation of the prey
prior to the strike (DEJEAN & BASHINGWA 1985, DE LA
MORA & al. 2008). Foragers may strike prey items multiple
times, using their strikes to break up large items into more
manageable fragments (personal observation in Odonto-
machus). Across species, use of the sting may be related
to the size of the worker relative to the prey item, with
smaller individuals stinging more frequently than larger
individuals (BROWN 1976, DEJEAN & BASHINGWA 1985,
SPAGNA & al. 2009). In quantitative studies of foraging
preference, Odontomachus chelifer and O. bauri foragers
were found to significantly prefer termites, including chemi-
cally defended species of Nasutitermes (see FOWLER 1980,
EHMER & HÖLLDOBLER 1995, RAIMUNDO & al. 2009). In
the arboreal species Odontomachus hastatus, workers col-
lected termites much less frequently, instead returning with
dipterans, lepidopterans, and other ants (CARMAGO & OLI-
VEIRA 2012). However, foragers of Odontomachus accept
a wide variety of food including other ants and insects
(WHEELER 1900, BROWN 1976, FOWLER 1980, EHMER &
HÖLLDOBLER 1995, DE LA MORA & al. 2008, RAIMUNDO
& al. 2009), insect frass (CERQUERA & TSCHINKEL 2010,
author's unpubl. observ.), plant material (PIZO & OLIVEIRA
32
2001, PASSOS & OLIVEIRA 2004), honey-dew from tend-
ing hemipterans (EVANS & LESTON 1971), and even ju-
venile vertebrates (FACURE & GIARETTA 2009). Very little
is known about Anochetus prey preferences, but at least one
species, Anochetus traegordhi, is a specialist on Nasuti-
termes termites. This species is found nesting in the same
rotten logs as termite colonies, and even retrieves termite
worker prey in preference over soldier caste prey (SCHATZ
& al. 1999). The colonies of several other Anochetus spe-
cies are also found in termite nests (BROWN 1976, SHAT-
TUCK 1999), but they will accept many different arthropods
in the lab, including termites, fruit flies, and springtails
(GRONENBERG & EHMER 1996, author's unpubl. observ.).
Trap-jaw ants are not unique among insects that speci-
alize on fast or chemically defended prey. Workers of Myr-
mica rubra, for example, actively catch springtails with-
out use of a trap-jaw, instead using a stereotypical jumping
attack (REZNIKOVA & PANTELEEVA 2001). Likewise sev-
eral species of beetles are springtail specialists. The cara-
bid Notiophilus biguttatus is a visual hunter that relies on
the accuracy of judging the distance and direction of prey
to successfully capture springtails (BAUER 1981). The di-
verse genus Stenus (Coleoptera: Staphylinidae) comprises
specialized collembolan predators that use an adhesive se-
cretion on the distal end of their elongated labium to cap-
ture their prey. These beetles also employ a power amplifi-
cation mechanism to rapidly (3 - 5 ms) extend their labium
before a springtail can escape (BETZ & KÖLSCH 2004).
No studies have been conducted on the relative capture ef-
ficiency or prey preference of these specialized predators
compared with trap-jaw ants, and so it is unclear what their
competitive interactions would be in areas where their dis-
tributions overlap.
Defensive behaviors: Just as the sting and other preda-
tory weapons can be used in both predation and defense,
the mandible strike of trap-jaw ants can also be used for
colony or individual defense. The major workers in the
polymorphic Orectognathus versicolor (see CARLIN 1981)
as well as workers in the monomorphic Odontomachus
ruginodis (see CARLIN & GLADSTEIN 1989) and Myrmo-
teras spp. (MOFFETT 1986b) wait at nest entrances with
open mandibles and act as "bouncers", snapping their man-
dibles at would-be invaders and pushing them away. Addi-
tional observations have been made of trap-jaw ants at-
tacking predators or potential competitors with their man-
dible strikes, often dismembering them without bringing
them back to the nest as food (CREIGHTON 1937, MOFFETT
1986b, EHMER & HÖLLDOBLER 1995, SPAGNA & al. 2009).
One consequence of producing such large forces and
snapping at prey, predators, and competitors is that, occasi-
onally, individuals strike something much larger than them-
selves, resulting in the trap-jaw ant itself being launched
into the air. This behavior was defined as "retrosalience"
(backward jumping) by WHEELER (1900, 1922) who re-
viewed the natural history literature of a number of jump-
ing Odontomachus species from the late 1800s and early
1900s. Later authors documented retrosalience in a num-
ber of other lineages including Anochetus, Orectognathus,
Strumigenys, Myrmoteras and largely concluded that this
behavior was an accidental by-product of striking a hard
surface with high force (CREIGHTON 1930, 1937, BROWN
1953, CARLIN & GLADSTEIN 1989). The reported distance
travelled by the ants as a consequence of their mandible
strikes can be quite large ranging from 20 - 25 cm in a dace-
tine ant (WHEELER 1922) to over 40 cm in Odontomachus
bauri (see PATEK & al. 2006). The escape jumps powered
by trap-jaw ant mandibles are comparable to the record-
breaking jumps of froghoppers, fleas and other jumping
arthropods that use modified legs (BURROWS 2006, SUT-
TON & BURROWS 2011).
Recent research suggests that, in some instances, jump-
ing may be an intentional predator avoidance behavior (PA-
TEK & al. 2006, SPAGNA & al. 2009). PATEK & al. (2006)
distinguished two different jumping behaviors in Odonto-
machus bauri based on their trajectory: horizontal "boun-
cer" jumps (not to be confused with bouncer behavior
sensu CARLIN 1981) resulting from striking a large object
and vertical "escape" jumps, resulting from striking the sub-
strate. Using four species of Odontomachus, SPAGNA & al.
(2009) demonstrated that escape jumps rarely occurred dur-
ing interaction with prey but were more likely when a fo-
cal ant was surrounded by heterospecifics. Predators that
Odontomachus workers may use the escape jump against
include, but are not limited to, a number of specialist or ge-
neralist predatory ants. For example, Formica archboldi
is thought to be a specialist on Odontomachus brunneus
(see DEYRUP & COVER 2004), and the diurnal forager Pa-
chycondyla striata occasionally takes as prey or even robs
the prey of Odontomachus chelifer (see RAIMUNDO & al.
2009). More research is still needed, however, to examine
how often escape jumps are used in natural contexts and
whether the behavior actually improves individual survival.
Trap jaws as key morphological innovation
The trap-jaw apparatus is a dramatic example of morpholo-
gical innovation, where a structural novelty (latch and trig-
ger muscle) has facilitated the evolution of a completely
new function (power amplification), but it is still unclear
why this morphology would evolve convergently so many
times in a single insect family. It is possible that trap jaws
enable their owners to catch fast or dangerous prey that
are largely inaccessible to other predators. If so, power-
amplified mandibles may have facilitated access to a previ-
ously untapped dietary source and caused an increase in
speciation and morphological evolution (HEARD & HAU-
SER 1995, HUNTER 1998a) and would fit the definition of a
key morphological innovation: traits that allow organisms
to interact with their environment in a new way.
Two recent studies provide some evidence that the line-
ages that contain the ponerine and myrmicine trap-jaw ants
are each associated with significant increases in diversifi-
cation rate (PIE & TSCHÁ 2009, MOREAU & BELL 2013),
consistent with the hypothesis that the trap-jaw is a key in-
novation. Key innovations have been used to explain pat-
terns of diversity in many animal groups (HUNTER 1998a,
PRICE & al. 2010, DUMONT & al. 2012), but establishing
causality of proposed key innovations can be difficult (HUN-
TER 1998b, MASTERS & RAYNER 1998). In addition to de-
monstrating a shift in diversification rate, linking trap jaws
to patterns of species diversity will require showing that
trap-jaw ants have entered new adaptive zones compared to
closely related non-trap-jaw ant species and that trap jaws
quantitatively improve the ecological performance of line-
ages that have them. For example, Odontomachus bauri has
been shown to be quantitatively better at disabling Nasuti-
termes soldiers than other ants by using a "strike and re-
33
coil" strategy (TRANIELLO 1981). However little is known
about predation efficiency for the majority of trap-jaw ant
species. More research is needed on the diet, ecology, and
macroevolution of trap-jaw ants before any conclusions can
be drawn about their importance in trap-jaw ant diversifi-
cation.
Conclusions
With so much of their biology still unknown, trap-jaw ants
should serve as excellent study organisms for future stu-
dents of functional morphology, behavior, evolution, and
development. In many cases, we still know very little about
basic natural history and functional morphology, especially
in the genus Myrmoteras. Accurate estimates of the kine-
matic capabilities (speed, acceleration, and force) for the
vast majority of trap-jaw ants are still unavailable. Paired
with mandible performance data, dietary preferences could
provide insights into predator-prey arms races. Future ef-
forts should also focus on identifying what structure act as
a spring and stores the elastic strain energy that makes pow-
er amplified mandibles possible. Only with this information
we will be able to derive a predictive model that relates
morphology to strike performance.
Beyond stabilizing their classification, working out the
phylogenetic relationships among trap-jaw ant genera and
their closest non-trap-jaw relatives, especially in the sub-
families Ponerinae and Myrmicinae, will be critical for cor-
rectly understanding the evolution of this extreme condi-
tion. The tribe Dacetini, as currently defined, is ideal for a
careful synthesis of systematics, morphology, and beha-
vior to understand the transition from short, muscle driven
mandibles to the power-amplified mandibles of true trap-
jaw ants.
Finally, modern genomic and evolutionary development
tools will enable research on the developmental patterning
of trap-jaw mandibles and insights into the comparative
morphology of ant mouthparts. Recent research has pro-
vided insight into the genetics and development of insect
mouthparts (ANGELINI & KAUFMAN 2005) and established
a foundation for studying the mechanisms responsible for
producing morphologically specialized structures like trap-
jaw mandibles. Combined with careful phylogenetic meth-
ods, future research will be able to reveal the homology of
trap-jaw mandibles across each lineage and study the con-
vergent evolution of morphological innovations at the lev-
els of genetics and development.
Acknowledgments
We would like to thank the following people for their help
and insight: J. Lattke for bringing Protalaridris armata to
our attention as a possible trap-jaw ant; P.S. Ward for dis-
cussion on the relationships among the myrmicine genera,
especially the Dacetini and for sharing his unpublished tree;
M.K. Larabee for helpful comments on this manuscript;
two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments, and the
Suarez Lab for general support. This work was supported
by the University of Illinois School of Integrative Biology
(Francis M. and Harlie M. Clark Research Support Grant),
Sigma Xi (Grants-in-Aid of Research), and the Peter and
Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation (Peter Buck Predoctoral
Fellowship) to FJL and by the National Science Founda-
tion Grant (DEB 1020979) to AVS.
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... For ants, mandibles are functionally essential, which help them physically interact with varying environments for foraging, predation, food processing, defense, nest excavation, and brood care (Hölldobler and Wilson, 1990;Lach et al., 2010;Larabee and Suarez, 2014;Zhang et al., 2020). One of the most extreme specializations of ant mandibles can be found in trap-jaw ants characterized by the elongated and poweramplified mandibles, which use the equalized catapult mechanism combining the spring and latch to generate extremely high-speed strikes (Larabee and Suarez, 2014;Patek et al., 2006). ...
... For ants, mandibles are functionally essential, which help them physically interact with varying environments for foraging, predation, food processing, defense, nest excavation, and brood care (Hölldobler and Wilson, 1990;Lach et al., 2010;Larabee and Suarez, 2014;Zhang et al., 2020). One of the most extreme specializations of ant mandibles can be found in trap-jaw ants characterized by the elongated and poweramplified mandibles, which use the equalized catapult mechanism combining the spring and latch to generate extremely high-speed strikes (Larabee and Suarez, 2014;Patek et al., 2006). Previous studies investigated the morphological and neurobiological characterization of the mandible strikes of trap-jaw ants (Gronenberg, 1995a;Gronenberg, 1995b;Gronenberg et al., 1997;Gronenberg and Tautz, 1994;Gronenberg et al., 1993;Larabee et al., 2017). ...
... We compared the morphology of Odontomachus monticola mandibles to the mandibles of the closely related species Anochetus risii. Previous studies showed that two Ponerine clades, Anochetus and Odontomachus, are monophyletic sister groups through the molecular phylogenetic analysis (Fernandes et al., 2021;Larabee et al., 2016), which had high similarities in body and mandible morphology (Larabee and Suarez, 2014). Another species for comparing the morphology of O. monticola is Myrmoteras binghamii, which is the trap-jaw ant that belongs to the subfamily Formicinae. ...
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... The trapjaw mechanism found in this and other ant groups is a LaMSA system consisting of a latch that holds the mandibles in an open position, while enlarged mandibular closure muscles load elastic strain energy into a spring, the apodeme. Once the spring is fully loaded, specialized trigger muscles remove the latch, releasing the stored energy and allowing the mandibles to snap shut at exceedingly high speeds (upward of 60 m/s) (Larabee and Suarez 2014;Larabee et al. 2017;Gibson et al. 2018;Booher et al. 2021). ...
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... Odontomachus is a pantropical ponerine genus containing 67 species distributed from semi-arid to rainforest habitats [20,22]. Odontomachus trap-jaw ants are visually oriented hunters that nest on the ground or on plants [23,24], feeding predominantly on litter-dwelling and arboreal arthropods [25][26][27]. Two species of Odontomachus, O. chelifer (Latreille, 1802) and O. hastatus (Fabricius, 1804) ( Fig. 1), have previously been studied for their social organization and nesting habits [28,29]. ...
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... Then one by one the other worker ants around will also help to paralyze their prey to death. Larabee and Suarez [12] acknowledged the strength of mandible as very important during hunting. Figure 3 A, B and C shows observations on the dead larvae of O. rhinoceros and R. ferrugineus found that M. castaneae ants carried their larvae to the dead prey larvae to eat the hemolymph fluid together. ...
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... These four phases are essential for explaining the control of energy flow during mantis shrimp strikes and for building repeated-use synthetic models that do not rely on contact latches that are prone to wear. These discoveries set the stage for novel synthetic design and also enable empirical studies of latching dynamics in the many organisms with internal latches that cannot be visualized in vivo (1,(61)(62)(63)(64)(65). ...
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