Washington, November 25 : The termite Termes panamensis (Snyder) can kill a would-be nest invader just by hitting it once on its head, according to a new study.
Marc Seid and Jeremy Niven, post-doctoral fellows at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Rudolf Scheffrahn from the University of Florida, say that the Panamanian termite possesses the fastest mandible strike ever recorded. he researchers conducted the study at the Smithsonian's new neurobiology laboratory in Panama, which was established by a donation from the Frank Levinson Family Foundation for the purpose of understanding the evolution of brain miniaturization by using the country's abundant insect biodiversity.
"Ultimately, we're interested in the evolution of termite soldiers' brains and how they employ different types of defensive weaponry," said Seid.
The team captured footage of the soldier termite's jaws, as they struck an invader at almost 70 meters per second, on a high-speed video camera in the laboratory at 40,000 frames per second.
"Many insects move much faster than a human eye can see so we knew that we needed high speed cameras to capture their behaviour, but we weren't expecting anything this fast. If you don't know about the behaviour, you can't hope to understand the brain," Seid said.
As to what makes the termites so fast, the researchers said that insects have difficulty generating forces that inflict damage as they become small.
"To create a large impact force with a light object you need to reach very high velocities before impact," Niven said.
Given that a termite soldier faces down its foe inside a narrow tunnel, and has little room to parry and little time to waste, the deathblow proves to be incredibly efficient.
According to the researchers, the force for the blow is stored by deforming the jaws, which are held pressed against one another until the strike is triggered.
They have revealed that the same 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.
A research article on the study has been published in the journal Current Biology.