Desert ant runs so fast it covers 100 times its body length per second

By Michael Marshall Life is a sprint for the Saharan silver antHarald WolfThe world’s fastest ant can run at almost a metre per second, covering more than 100 times its own body length in that time. The Saharan silver ant (Cataglyphis bombycina) has one of the most extreme lifestyles of any insect. It lives in…

By Michael Marshall

soldier Saharan silver ant

Life is a sprint for the Saharan silver ant

Harald Wolf

The world’s fastest ant can run at almost a metre per second, covering more than 100 times its own body length in that time.

The Saharan silver ant (Cataglyphis bombycina) has one of the most extreme lifestyles of any insect. It lives in the Sahara desert, where the ground regularly reaches temperatures of 60°C. Most animals find shelter at the hottest times of day, but this is when Saharan silver ants venture outside. In a furious burst of activity that may be as short as 10 minutes, they scavenge for insects and other small animals that have fallen victim to the heat.

It has been clear since the 1980s that they run very fast, says Sarah Pfeffer at Ulm University in Germany. Desert ant researcher Rüdiger Wehner reported in 1983 that they might reach 1 metre per second, but this figure has been doubted ever since. “They had no high-speed camera,” says Pfeffer.

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Pfeffer and her colleagues have now measured how fast Saharan silver ants run using high-speed video. It turns out they can reach 85.5 centimetres per second, which is pretty close to Wehner’s estimate.

Quicksilver ants

Close examination of the video revealed several hints about how the ants manage this.

First, their legs are unusually short for desert ants – which normally have long legs to keep their bodies away from the hot ground. The short legs allow the Saharan silver ants to take over 40 steps per second.

Second, their legs move in an unusual way. Like most insects, the ants move three of their six legs at a time. However, most insects don’t move all three precisely simultaneously. “It’s a very jerky movement if you do that,” says Pfeffer. The Saharan silver ants break this rule, with the legs almost synchronous. “We think this might help them with the sandy substrate,” says Pfeffer, perhaps ensuring that their feet don’t sink into the sand and slow them.

Other animals do go faster, depending how the speed is measured. In absolute terms, cheetahs are faster, running at over 30 metres per second. Meanwhile, a tiny Californian mite called Paratarsotomus macropalpis can cover over 300 body lengths per second.

However, the Saharan silver ants have other remarkable abilities. In particular they are extremely heat-tolerant, thanks in part to special silvery hairs that protect them.

Journal reference: Journal of Experimental Biology, DOI: 10.1242/jeb.198705

Read more: Extreme survival: Creatures that can take the heat

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