Relative to body size, Saharan Silver Ants sprint 20x faster than Usain Bolt (These are Saharan silver ant (Cataglyphis bombycina) workers in the desert at Douz, Tunisia © Harald Wolf)

Relative to body size, Saharan silver ants sprint 20x faster than Usain Bolt

Tiny Tunisian insect runs at speeds of 855mm/s, making it the world’s fastest ant.

The Saharan silver ant has joined the list of world record-breaking animals, as researchers from the University of Ulm in Germany have found it is able to run at speeds of 855mm/s, 108 times its own body length per second. To put that into perspective, when Usain Bolt set the world record for the 100m sprint in 2009, he ran at just 5.35 times his body height per second.

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The tiny ant’s impressive speed comes from the fact that it must be fast enough to survive its travels across the blisteringly hot desert. At midday in Douz, Tunisia, while other animals shelter from the hot Sun, the Saharan silver ant takes advantage of the lack in predators to scavenge the corpses of less-fortunate creatures.

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Surface temperatures can exceed 60 degrees Celsius but the silver ant is only able to tolerate a body temperature of up to 53 degrees Celsius, so it must minimise the total time spent in the hot, dry desert environment. Shady spots to rest and recoup are few and far between, so the ant needs to return to its underground nest regularly to cool down between foraging expeditions.

“We had to look for digging ants or follow a foraging ant back home,” said Sarah Pfeffer. “After the ants have found the food – they love mealworms – they shuttle back and forth in the channel and we mounted our camera to film them from the top.”

It was previously known that the ants were capable of reaching incredibly high speeds but it wasn’t known exactly how fast they were or how they achieved their staggering pace. The team found that though their legs are almost 20 per cent shorter than another Tunisian ant of the same genus, the silver ant’s footwork is more impressive, moving their legs at speeds of up to 1.3m/s and taking 47 strides per second. At high speeds, the ants take all six of their feet off the ground to gallop across the desert sand. When their feet do touch ground, it is for as little as 7 milliseconds.

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“These features may be related to the sand dune habitat,” said Harald Wolf. “[They] could prevent the animal’s feet from sinking too deeply into the soft sand.”

Reader Q&A: Do ants ever sleep?

Asked by: Paul Bachelor, by email

Ants definitely rest – in any given colony there will always be some individuals that are standing still, not doing anything. Ants are also inactive in cold temperatures and many species hibernate through the winter.

Resting ants exhibit loss of muscle tone and reduced sensitivity to stimuli. But they don’t have a complex enough nervous system to exhibit the different brain wave patterns seen in humans during sleep; nor do they dream.

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