July 23, 2010
Think about how you might try to catch King Kong: large numbers of people might help, but it takes coordination and a technological advantage—guns on planes—to bring the big guy down. Ants don’t have guns or planes (not yet, anyway), so how can they capture something thousands of times bigger than themselves? Coordination and a technical advantage of a different sort.
Arboreal ants of the species Azteca andreae live on trumpet trees (Cecropia obtusa) in French Guiana. Thousands of ants line up on the undersides of the leaves of the tree, waiting with mandibles open. When a wasp or moth lands nearby, the ants seize it by its limbs and spread-eagle the struggling victim. More ants then gather to carve up their meal and cart the carcass to the nest.
Numbers alone couldn’t make this possible. If everyone clambered onto King Kong, he would have just dragged them away, right? The Aztec ants work together to take advantage of their own technological advantage, one that comes in the form of Velcro-like stickiness, say biologists in a new study in PLoS ONE. The underside of C. obtusa leaves is downy, like the soft, looped side of Velcro, and the ants have claws shaped like hooks that attach to the leaves. When their prey lands, the ants coordinate their action to grab onto the insect and keep it pinned until they can kill or stun their meal. This strategy lets the ants catch prey up to 13,350 times the average ant’s weight, without being dragged to death.
Dejean A, Leroy C, Corbara B, Roux O, Céréghino R, et al. (2010) Arboreal Ants Use the “Velcro® Principle” to Capture Very Large Prey. PLoS ONE 5(6): e11331. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011331
Check out the entire collection of Surprising Science’s Pictures of the Week on our Facebook page.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.