Locomotion and adhesion: dynamic control of adhesive surface contact in ants

Arthropod Struct Dev. 2004 Jan;33(1):67-75. doi: 10.1016/j.asd.2003.11.001.


Tarsal adhesive pads of insects are highly dynamic organs that play an important role in locomotion. Many insects combine fast running performance with strong resistance to detachment forces. This capacity requires an effective control of attachment forces at the tarsus and pretarsus. Here we investigate mechanisms of attachment control in Asian weaver ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) by measuring the dynamics of the adhesive contact area and the claws during locomotion. O. smaragdina ants walking upside down on a smooth substrate used only a fraction (approx. 14%) of their maximum possible contact area. When these ants were loaded with 30 mg weights (corresponding to approx. 6 times their own body weight), however, they employed much larger (but still submaximal; approx. 60%) contact areas. The increase of contact area was accompanied by a stronger flexion of the claws, which demonstrates the participation of the claw flexor muscle in the control of adhesive contact. However, only part of the contact area dynamics could be explained by the action of the claw flexor. During the stance phase, adhesive contact area changed while the claws remained motionless. Even when corrected for the effects of claw flexion, adhesive contact areas differed by a factor of 2.1 between loaded and unloaded ants. Our findings give evidence that running ants control their adhesive contact area by a combination of active movements of the claw flexor muscle and passive reactions of the mechanical system.