These Ants Can Travel 108 Times Their Own Body Length in a Single Second

Saharan silver ants (Cataglyphis bombycina) can reach jaw dropping speeds of 855 millimeters per second, making these teeny scavengers the Usain Bolts of the ant kingdom.

The species lives in the harsh conditions of the Sahara, the Sinai and the Arabian Peninsula. But unlike most animals that live in these ecosystems, they regularly brave the stifling heat of the midday sun, when the sand can reach temperatures as high as 60°C, to scout for food. They survive on the carcasses of animals that have succumbed to heat stress, forging a niche as a thermophilic scavenger.

However, to survive and thrive in this role, the Saharan silver ant has had to undergo a number of adaptations. Food is scarce and scattered over long distances. There are few places of shade for foraging insects and the sand can make movement difficult and more energy-intensive.

Saharan Silver Ant
Saharan silver ants (Cataglyphis bombycina) can travel 108 times their own body weight in the space of a second. Harald Wolf

Now, researchers writing in the Journal of Experimental Biology show Cataglyphis bombycina are the fastest ants to have ever been recorded, reaching levels of 0.855 meters per second during the hottest part of the day with leg speeds of up to 1300 millimeters per second. That works out at 108 times their own body weight per second—roughly equivalent to an average height American woman (5 foot 4 inches) running one-and-a-half football fields in a second.

The team were able to film the insects in situ by luring the ants out of their tunnels and into aluminum channels that had been connected to the entrance of the nests using mealworms. As they shuttled back and forth along the tunnel, the camera filmed the ants' movements.

In addition to filming the ants in the wild, the researchers extracted one nest from its site, transferring it from the deserts in Douz, Tunisia, to a lab in Germany. In the lab, they noticed the ants' running speeds fell to 0.057 meters per second under 10°C temperatures.

The team discovered how silver ants are able to reach such impressive speeds, reporting that they don't just run—they gallop when they reach speeds of 0.3 meters per second or higher. This means all six feet lift off the ground at the same time. They also noticed that the ants synchronized the movement in their feet so that each foot only had contact with the ground for 7 milliseconds or so.

Saharan Silver Ants
These are Saharan silver ant (Cataglyphis bombycina) workers in the desert at Douz, Tunisia. Harald Wolf

The silver ants, they say, are not only the world's fastest ant, but are among some of the fastest animals on the planet. The handful of species that surpass the silver ant in this regard include the Australian tiger beetle and the California coastal mite, which can accomplish speeds of 171 body lengths and 377 body lengths per second respectively.

"These features may be related to the sand dune habitat," Harald Wolf from the University of Ulm, Germany, said in a statement. Adding, '[they] could prevent the animal's feet from sinking too deeply into the soft sand'.

The study adds to a body of research that shows just how impressive ants can be. There are more than 10,000 known ant species in the world and while their muscle power can vary between species, they routinely lift weights 10 to 50 times their own body weight.

The green-bottomed Asian weaver (Oecophylla smaragdina) has been pictured lifting 100 times its own weight—which would be equivalent to the average American man lifting 13 cows.