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Researchers: Trap-Jaw Ants Invading Southeastern US

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File photo of ants. (Photo credit: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)

File photo of ants. (Photo credit: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)

RALEIGH, N.C. (CBS Charlotte) – An invasive new species of ants that can launch themselves in the air like a bottle rocket is invading new territory in the southeastern United States.

The ants are known as trap-jaw ants because their mandibles or mouthparts are capable of opening 180 degrees.

“They look like little hammerhead sharks walking around,” D. Magdalena Sorger told National Geographic.

As part of her PhD research at North Carolina State University, Sorger has been studying the ants and published a review of the species living in the United States with co-authors Joe MacGown, Brendon Boudinot, and Mark Deyrup in the May issue of Zootaxa.

According to new research, of the four species of trap-jaw ants native to the U.S., the Odontomachus haematodus species from South America is becoming more common in states near the Gulf Coast. This particular species is extremely aggressive.

“Trap-jaw ants have little sensory hairs on the inside of their jaws,” Sheila Patek, a biologist who studies the evolutionary mechanics of movements at Duke University, told National Geographic. Patek shared that the hairs are linked to the muscles that hold the jaw open, “so they can fire those latch muscles even faster than their brain can process.”

When the ants are threatened, they fire their bite against the ground so they can be hurled into the air. Patek noted that when an entire army of ants does this move it can be extremely frightening.

“The next thing you know you have this ant flying through the air that you can’t even see, it’s moving so fast, with a big stinger on the end of its abdomen,” she told National Geographic. “It is really nerve-racking working with them.”

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