December 15, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

And the Fastest Animal Is…

If you think the answer is peregrine falcon or cheetah, think again. This one skitters about under your feet.

In the animal world championships, a new winner has been named in the speed category. There are strong contenders in that arena: cheetahs in the mammal tribe, falcons in the bird taxon, and mantis shrimp in the marine team. Now, a contender beats them all: a little bitty insect with a fearsome name: the Dracula Ant.

Dracula ant’s powerful pincers snap shut at record speed (Nature). Even if you don’t blink you will miss it in the video clip that starts the article. “Fangs are feeble next to the fastest appendages in the animal world,” this brief news piece says. “An insect dubbed the Dracula ant is a speed champion among animals: it snaps its front pincers shut in less than 1/5,000 of the time it takes to blink.” It took high speed cameras to show this ant winning against the trap-jaw ant and the mantis shrimp. How does it work?

Fredrick Larabee at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and colleagues investigated this Amazing Factsmechanism using computer models and high-speed videos. The researchers found that the ant’s front appendages, unlike those of most other ants, can bow inwards when the pincer tips press against each other, generating a spring-like tension. When one pincer slips under the other, this tension releases, propelling the pincers shut at 90 metres per second — faster than a bullet train, and the fastest-known speed for an animal appendage.

Phys.org says this is faster than the 200 mph speed of a peregrine falcon.

“These ants are fascinating as their mandibles are very unusual,” said University of Illinois animal biology and entomology professor Andrew Suarez, who led the research with Fredrick J. Larabee, a postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; and Adrian A. Smith, of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and North Carolina State University, Raleigh. “Even among ants that power-amplify their jaws, the Dracula ants are unique: Instead of using three different parts for the spring, latch and lever arm, all three are combined in the mandible.

The high-speed action appears to be within the reach of variation, since “it only took small changes in shape for the jaws to evolve a new function: acting as a spring.”

This is not evolution or speciation, but slight modifications to existing genetic information and parts. Even creationists accept that kind of variability (beak size, coloration, etc.). Still, this is a pretty spectacular example for a small animal. Dr Randy Guliuzza presents a design-theoretic model that explains these kinds of adaptations. Animals come pre-programmed to handle environmental changes, he says. See one of his articles at ICR’s Acts and Facts monthly publication.

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