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World’s Fastest Ants Take 47 Steps a Second

Douz, Tunisia —(Map)

Saharan silver ants are the world’s fastest ants. Scientists from the University of Ulm in Germany recently studied these amazing insects to learn how they’re able to move so fast.

As the name suggests, the Saharan silver ants live in the Sahara desert. Their silver color comes from tiny silver hairs, which help reflect the sunlight to keep them cool.

Saharan silver ant
Saharan silver ants are the world’s fastest ants. They live in the Sahara desert. Their silver color comes from tiny silver hairs, which help reflect the sunlight to keep them cool.
(Source: Harald Wolf, University of Ulm.)

Unlike other animals and insects, Saharan silver ants don’t simply hide in the shade during the heat of the day. For up to 10 minutes a day, they head out over the hot sand to try to find the bodies of other insects that have died from the heat.

If you’ve ever walked barefoot on hot sand, you have some idea of how hot it can get. But the Sahara is extremely hot – temperatures can get as high as 140° Fahrenheit (60° Celsius).

A group of Saharan silver ants (Cataglyphis bombycina) devouring a camel tick Hyalomma dromedarii.
Saharan silver ants don’t simply hide in the shade during the heat of the day. For up to 10 minutes a day, they head out over the hot sand to try to find the bodies of insects that have died from the heat. The insect shown here is a camel tick.
(Source: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Learning about the ants was a challenge. To study them, the scientists first had to find a nest. Then they set up a metal track to get the ants to run in a straight line. At the end of the track they placed small worms as bait.

By recording the ants with a high-speed camera, the scientists were able to study and measure the way the insects walked.

A scientist sits by an aluminum channel set up to film Saharan silver ants running.
To study the ants, scientists had to find a nest and set up a metal track to get the ants to run in a straight line. At the end of the track they placed small worms as bait. The scientists used a high-speed camera to study and measure the way the insects walked.
(Source: Dr. Sarah Pfeffer, University of Ulm.)

The silver ants have short legs – six of them. But they’ve learned to move in special ways that help them survive. When they’re moving fast, the silver ants use three legs at a time – the front and back on one side and the middle on the other.

They spring off the ground, lifting all six legs into the air before landing briefly on the other three legs. At their fastest, the ants’ legs hit the ground for as little as 7 milliseconds – that’s .007 (7/1000) seconds.

A group of Saharan silver ants (Cataglyphis bombycina) at work dismantling a beetle (Tenebrioninae/Stenocara) to bring it back to their nest.
When they’re moving fast, the silver ants use three legs at a time. They spring off the ground, lifting all six legs into the air before landing briefly on the other three legs.
(Source: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Usain Bolt is often thought of as the fastest person in the world. His record of running 100 meters (109 yards) in 9.58 seconds has never been broken. Neither has his 200 meter (119 yard) record of 19.19 seconds.

Saharan silver ants are slower than Usain Bolt, but they are speedier in certain ways. To set his 100 meter record, Mr. Bolt took 41 strides (steps) in 10 seconds. The ants can take 47 strides in a single second.

Bolt racing in the 2016 Olympics
Usain Bolt is often thought of as the fastest person in the world. To set his 100 meter record, Mr. Bolt took 41 strides (steps) in 10 seconds. The ants can take 47 strides in a single second.
(Source: Fernando Frazo/Agncia Brasil, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Mr. Bolt is nearly 2 meters (6 feet, 6 inches) tall. In his 200 meter record, it took him 19 seconds to travel 100 times his body length. But Saharan silver ants can cover 108 times their body length in just one second.

Though silver ants are the fastest ants, there are two other insects that are faster. The Australian tiger beetle can travel 171 body lengths in a second, and the California coastal mite can go an amazing 377 body lengths per second.

Douz, Tunisia


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