Ants are incredible creatures that can be spotted practically anywhere on the planet. They’ve roamed the earth for millions of years and have evolved to survive in diverse environments. But what makes these little insects so fascinating is their remarkable legs, which enable them to accomplish many tasks and fulfill different roles. From foraging for food to defending their colonies, ants rely heavily on their versatile legs to navigate their surroundings and overcome obstacles.
In this article, we’ll uncover some interesting facts about ant legs, like their number of legs, their functions, and more.
10 Fascinating Facts about Ant Legs
1. Ants Have Six Legs
Ants, like all insects, have six legs; this is true for all ant species, from the tiny pharaoh ant to the giant bullet ant. Whether an ant is a laborer, a queen, or a male, it will always have precisely six legs, each attached to the thorax, the middle segment of the ant’s tripartite physique. The thorax contains many muscles that allow the ant to move and perform different tasks.
Some ants have wings, but only for a short period of their life. These are the reproductive ants, also known as queens and males. They use their wings to fly and mate during a special event called a nuptial flight. After mating, the queens shed their wings and start a new colony, while the males die soon after.
2. Ants’ Legs Have Five Segments
The coxa is the first segment of the ant leg, attached to the thorax. It acts as a pivot point for the rest of the leg, allowing it to rotate and swing. The coxa also contains muscles that help the ant move its leg forward and backward.
The second joint is called the trochanter. It connects to the hip (coxa) near the body and the thigh (femur) further away. The trochanter can only move in one direction because of how it’s attached to the hip.
The third part of an insect’s leg is the femur, sandwiched between the trochanter and the tibia. The femur is usually the beefiest part of the leg.
The tibia is the fourth part of an insect’s leg. It’s usually thinner than the thigh (femur) but just as long or longer. At the bottom end of the tibia, there’s usually a tiny pointy part called the tibial spur. Sometimes, there might even be two or more of these spurs!
The final part of the insect’s leg is known as the tarsus. It is the furthest section from the body and comprises five units known as tarsomeres. The tarsus typically ends in one or two sharp claws.
3. Ants Run Very Fast
Ants are super speedy creatures despite their small size, and that’s because of their strong thorax muscles. Some ants can run up to 300 meters in just one hour! The Saharan silver ant is an excellent example; it can go up to 108 times its body length in a second.
That’s way faster than the best sprinter in the world, Usain Bolt, who can only run about six times his body length in a second. If Bolt wants to match the ant’s speed, he has to run about 475 miles per hour!
4. Ants Have Hooked Claws at the End of Their Legs
Ants are excellent climbers. They can easily walk on smooth and inverted surfaces using two structures on their feet: adhesive pads and tarsal friction hair arrays.
- Adhesive Pads: Adhesive pads, also known as arolia, are soft and flexible structures at each ant leg’s tip. When ants climb, they pull their legs towards their body and press their adhesive pads against the substrate.
- Tarsal Friction Hair Arrays: Tarsal friction hair arrays, also called heels, are dense arrays of fine hairs that cover the ventral side of the 3rd and 4th segments of each ant’s leg. When ants climb, they push their legs away from their body and press their tarsal hairs against the substrate. The strands can bend and increase their side contact with the surface, creating a large contact area and a high friction force.
How Ants Use Both Structures
Ants use adhesive pads and tarsal friction hair arrays depending on whether their legs are above or below their center of mass (CoM). Legs above the CoM pull and engage the adhesive pads, whereas legs below the CoM push with the tarsal hairs in surface contact. This way, ants can balance their body weight and generate enough traction to climb on different substrates.
Both structures contribute to the climbing performance on smooth substrates, such as glass, but the adhesive pads play a more critical role. On rough substrates, such as sandpaper, both structures generate higher friction forces in the pushing than in the pulling direction, but the tarsal hairs play a more critical role.
5. Ants Can Lift 50 Times Their Weight Using Their Legs
Ants can carry enormous weights compared to their tiny size. Some estimates suggest they can manage up to 50 times their weight or even more! How do they do it? Well, ants have a remarkable physiological advantage.
Despite their diminutive size, their muscles are much thicker in proportion to their bodies than those of larger animals. This means they can exert much more force, pound-for-pound, or even milligram-for-milligram, than other creatures. They’ve incredibly robust bodies that can withstand extreme pressure without breaking.
Moreover, the legs of worker ants are generally stronger and more muscular than those of other colony members, such as queens and males. Worker ants typically perform various tasks that require strength and agility, such as foraging, digging, carrying, and fighting.
Why Do Ants Carry Things?
The motives behind ant carrying vary greatly, depending on their species and assigned colony duties. Certain ants carry food items like seeds, insects, or crumbs and deliver them to their nest to nourish themselves and their cohorts.
Others transport construction materials like soil, sand, or plant fibers to erect or refurbish their nests. Certain ants haul other bugs, like aphids or leafhoppers, to defend them from predators and gather their sugary secretions. Astonishingly, some ants carry fellow ants to extend or preserve their colonies.
Additionally, ants use various techniques to transport objects based on size and shape. For instance, some ants utilize their mandibles to grasp and move small items such as seeds or crumbs. On the other hand, larger objects like leaves or sticks are carried using their foremost legs. Some ants work together as a team when taking big, heavy loads like caterpillars or fruit. They form chains or clusters of workers that coordinate their movements and balance the load.
6. Ants Have Sensory Organs on Their Legs
Ants have sensory organs on their legs that help them detect vibrations, sounds, and smells. Let’s find out how these organs work and why they are essential for ants.
Ants have a unique body part called the subgenual organ that can sense vibrations in the ground. This body part is near the top of their leg bone, called the tibia. Ants use vibrations to communicate with each other in many different ways, and both grown-up ants and young ants can understand these signals.
Campaniform sensilla (CS) are sensors located near joints inside the hard outer layer of insect legs. They detect how much force is being applied and how quickly it changes. CS has different parts, including a cap, collar, socket, and neuron. When any segment is deformed by force applied, they send a signal to the brain.
The cap’s position, shape, and orientation help the sensor detect the force’s direction. The information from the CS helps the insect know how much weight is on its leg, enabling it to move in a way appropriate for the task at hand, like walking.
7. Ant Legs Can Be Modified For Different Purposes
Different ant species have unique leg adaptations based on their roles in the colony. For instance, some ants have spikes or spines on their legs, which they use for fighting or protecting themselves. The length of the legs can also affect the ants’ agility and speed, which varies from one species to another. Some ants use tiny brushes on their legs to clean their antennae and keep them healthy.
8. Ants Can Heal an Injured Leg
Ants can heal their broken legs after getting hurt in fights, but they can’t do it alone. Other ants that care for them, called nursing ants, help them. They bring the injured ants to the nest and clean their wounds with a special spit that has germ-fighting powers, which helps keep them safe from dangerous infections that could kill them. Thanks to this help, many ants get better within a few hours and can move around, fight, and get food like before.
Ants That Lose Their Legs Become Permanently Disabled
Ants cannot regenerate their broken limbs like other animals, such as starfish or salamanders. For this reason, they must live with missing legs for the rest of their lives. However, ants can still survive and function without them. They can adjust their walking pattern and balance themselves with their remaining legs.
9. Some Ants Can Use Their Legs to Swim
Ants can’t swim but can float on water. They also have little breathing holes on the sides of their bodies called spiracles, which let them breathe without lungs. Ants can close these holes to stop water from getting in. But floating on water isn’t the same as swimming, and most ants will try to escape water as quickly as possible. Some ants, however, have developed the ability to swim using their legs. These include:
Black carpenter ant (Camponotus pennsylvanicus)
The black carpenter ant isn’t typically found in water. However, in rare cases where it does venture into aquatic environments, it utilizes its front legs to paddle and the middle ones to row. The back legs of the ant might act as rudders to help with direction.
Silky field ant (Formica subsericea)
The silky field ant is a large, black ant in North America. It’s not usually associated with water, but it can swim well enough to cross water hazards or avoid drowning if it falls into a pool. It uses its fore and mid legs for propulsion, while its hind legs may serve as rudders.
Trap-jaw ant (Odontomachus)
Trap-jaw ants have powerful legs that help them swim in the water. According to one study, when trap-jaw ants fall into the water, they use one of their hind legs to stay afloat while one of their front and middle legs moves their body forward.
Diving ant (Camponotus schmitzi)
The diving ant lives in a symbiotic relationship with a carnivorous plant called Nepenthes bicalcarata, or the fanged pitcher plant. This plant has modified leaves that form pitfall traps filled with digestive fluid. The plant lures insects and other prey into its pitchers with nectar and attractive colors, then drowns and digests them.
The diving ant makes its nest in the hollow tendrils of the pitcher plant and feeds on the nectar and the insects that fall into the trap. The ant also helps the plant by defending it from herbivores and parasites.
What makes the diving ant stand out among other ants is its ability to dive and swim in the digestive fluid of the pitcher plant. The ant can break through the liquid’s surface tension by changing its body’s chemistry and using its legs to propel itself underwater like it would on land.
Why Do Ants Swim?
Ants swim for different reasons depending on their species and situation. Some ants swim to escape predators or floods, while others swim to find food or new habitats. For example, fire ants can form rafts by linking their legs and float on water until they reach dry land. This unique ability helps them survive floods and colonize new areas. The diving ant swims into the digestive fluids of pitcher plants, where it steals insects that have fallen into the trap; this gives it a unique food source that other ants cannot access.
10. Certain Species of Ants Can Jump Using Their Legs
Trap-jaw ants (Odontomachus) are famous for having jaws that open 180 degrees and snap shut at a staggering speed of 225 kilometers per hour. They can use their jaws to launch into the air, somersaulting several times their body length to escape predators or reach new places. Trap-jaw ants are the only ones that can jump with their jaws. But they are not the only ants that can jump at all.
Trap-Jaw Ants (Odontomachus rixosus): The Leg Jumpers
Researchers discovered a new behavior in a trap-jaw ant species (Odontomachus rixosus). Unlike other trap-jaw ants, this species can also jump using its legs, not just its mandibles, making them the only ants to do so. This ability may help them hunt prey, escape danger, or explore new habitats.
Ants: The Six-Legged Wonders
Ants are incredible insects with six legs serving many functions and adaptations. Ant legs are used for running, climbing, carrying, and communicating. They also differ among ant species depending on their needs and environments. Ant legs are one of the reasons ants are so successful and diverse on our planet.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/HHelene
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