U.S. researchers report that the termite named Termes panamensis possesses the fastest mandible strike ever recorded. 'Footage of the soldier termite's jaws as they strike an invader at almost 70 meters per second was captured on a high speed video camera in the laboratory at 40,000 frames per second.' As said one of the researchers, 'many insects move much faster than a human eye can see so we knew that we needed high speed cameras to capture their behavior, but we weren't expecting anything this fast.' I guess this discovery will not change our world, except for a new page in the Guinness Book of World Records. Read more...
You can see above a series of pictures of the soldier mandibles of Termes panamensis. (Credit: Urban Entomology Program of the University of Toronto, Canada, Photographic plates of termite soldier mandibles)
This research about Panamean termites has been done by Marc Seid and Jeremy Niven, two post-doctoral fellows at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The third member of the research team is Rudolf Scheffrahn from the University of Florida. Even I was unable to locate Scheffrahn's personal site, here is a link to a picture of him examining a tree termite nest in Fort Lauderdale in May 2004.
But how termites can move this fast? "When insects become small they have difficulty generating forces that inflict damage. 'To create a large impact force with a light object you need to reach very high velocities before impact,' Niven explains."
Here are some physical explanations. "The force for the blow is stored by deforming the jaws, which are held pressed against one another until the strike is triggered. This strategy of storing up energy from the muscles to produce fast movements is employed by locusts, trap-jaw ants and froghoppers. 'The termites need to store energy to generate enough destructive force. They appear to store the energy in their mandibles but we still don't know how they do this -- that's the next question,' says Niven."
This research work has been published in Current Biology under the title "The rapid mandible strike of a termite soldier" (Volume 18, Issue 22, November 25, 2008). Here is the abstract. "Arthropods use a remarkable variety of mechanisms to store energy for rapid ballistic movements. These movements are primarily either for prey capture or for predator evasion, although the mandible strike of the trap-jaw ant can produce both outcomes. Soldiers of the termite Termes panamaensis (Snyder) also have a mandible strike. We report that this mandible strike is a rapid, ballistic movement that functions neither for prey capture nor for predator evasion, but as a defence for the colony against insect invaders such as ants or other termite species. Unlike that of the trap-jaw ants, the mandible strike of T. panamaensis soldiers involves a scissor-like movement of highly elongated mandibles across one another, powered by energy stored in deformation of the mandibles, a mechanism convergent with the mandible strike of the ant Mystrium. The velocity achieved during the T. panamaensis strike exceeds those reported for other ballistic movements in arthropods and generates sufficient force upon impact that a single blow can kill invaders within the narrow confines of their tunnels.
Sources: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute news release, November 24, 2008; and various websites
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