"Describing how fast multiple species box each other helps us understand how this behavior evolves," co-author Adrian Smith of North Carolina State University said in a press release. "For instance, we found that when one species uses boxing as a form of aggression, the behavior is indistinguishable from boxing as a social dominance interaction between colony members."
Worker ants are usually the ones in these antennal boxing bouts. The fighting determines which ant has to stay in the nest and which gets to go out into the world to forage.
"All social animals exhibit dominance behaviors of one kind or another," said entomologist Andrew Suarez, a professor of entomology at the University of Illinois and head of the university's Department of Animal Biology. "In the case of social insects, we often focus on their chemical communication system, but in these ants the antennal boxing was too remarkable to ignore."
The researchers used high-speed cameras to record antennae-boxing matches in four species of trap-jaw ants. Then they counted how rapidly each species pummeled their opponents.
The speeds ranged from 19.5 strikes per second for Odontomachus rixosus, hailing from Cambodia, to the 41.5 strikes per second for Florida's own Odontomachus brunneus. The findings are published in the journal Insectes Sociaux.
Ants Enslave Each Other
The authors want to better determine why social organisms like trap-jaw ants use antennal boxing and other aggressive behaviors to organize their societies.
For now, consider how "box like a trap-jaw ant" might be added to renowned boxer Muhammad Ali's famous phrase: "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee."