Worker ants traded their wings for immense strength

A new study uses high resolution X-rays to study ant morphology

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an ant carrying a large white object that looks like a rock

Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash  

Ants are a particularly numerous group of animals — there are approximately 13,000 named species of ants in the world — and they can be found almost everywhere. 

Their evolutionary success is frequently attributed to their division of labor and cooperation during foraging. Ant queens and males are mainly involved in reproduction and have wings, while ant workers are generally wingless and are adapted to ground labor. Ant workers show an almost Herculean strength; the Asian weaver ant can lift up to 100 times its body weight. 

A team of researchers wanted to understand the morphological reason for this strength. A previous study on the anatomy of queens and workers from different species of ants found that worker ants' thoraxes (the part of their bodies between the neck and abdomen) have larger muscles on the first thoracic segment than queens, making their necks stronger and more mobile. 

Now, their new study using high resolution X-ray analysis discovered specific changes in their thorax that are different from other flightless insects. The muscles involved in the movement of worker ants' necks, legs, and abdomens are stronger and have more support points — allowing them to carry heavy weights on their head while walking and running and to move their sting with precision. Such enormous strength may help explain their ecological success, despite the fact that they can't fly.