Harald Wolf, a professor at the University of Ulm, Germany, and his colleagues found that the Saharan silver ant, Cataglyphis bombycina, can reach speeds of 0.855 meters per second with its high-frequency strides.
The team’s findings, based on experiments conducted in Tunisia, will be published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
Wolf, who mainly researches navigation in ants, told CNN: “We knew these animals would be fast, but nobody knew how fast exactly and how they would achieve that speed.”
He added that their speed surprised his research group, given that they have such short legs compared to their cousins, the desert ant – Cataglyphis fortis.
Although the reason behind their extraordinary speed is yet to be proved, Wolf thinks their shorter legs may be behind it.
By way of hypothesis, he said: “With their short legs…they can better synchronise the three legs they have on the ground at any given time. So, they can make very brief powerful impacts on the sand.”
Their shallow impacts prevent them from sinking into the soft sand too much, while they travel across the dunes to scavenge for dead insects – like flies, butterflies and beetles – to eat. This seems a wise strategy in an area where sand temperatures can reach up to 60°C (140°F), according to Wolf’s team.
The ants’ silver color also gives them some relief from the heat, as their shiny coats reflect sunlight and infrared, helping to keep them relatively cool.
Unlike the scientists, who found the heat a challenge, Wolf said.
Another difficulty was finding the ants’ nests in the first place.
Sarah Pfeffer, a scientist at the University of Ulm who worked on the project, said the team had to look for digging ants or follow a foraging ant back to its nest. Once they had located one, an aluminum channel was joined to the entrance with food at the end – to entice the ants out.
The scientists then filmed them from above to work out their speed. They also excavated a nest, which they took back to Germany to record the ants running more slowly in cooler temperatures.
A possible result of their work is a future collaboration with roboticists. “Insect research rather classically has provided some ideas for walking robots – how they might be used for coordinating their legs,” Wolf said.
He went on to say that this is “not immediately relevant,” as walking robots travel too slowly at the moment. But when they get faster, the study of insects may help the robotics field.
Although it is the fastest ant, other animals beat the Saharan silver ant in terms of body length traveled per second – the Australian tiger beetle manages 171 times per second, while the California coastal mite achieves 377 times per second.