The exoskeletal structure and tensile loading behavior of an ant neck joint

J Biomech. 2014 Jan 22;47(2):497-504. doi: 10.1016/j.jbiomech.2013.10.053. Epub 2013 Nov 13.


Insects have evolved mechanical form and function over millions of years. Ants, in particular, can lift and carry heavy loads relative to their body mass. Loads are lifted with the mouthparts, transferred through the neck joint to the thorax, and distributed over six legs and tarsi (feet) that anchor to the supporting surface. While previous research has explored attachment mechanisms of the tarsi, little is known about the relation between the mechanical function and the structural design and material properties of the ant. This study focuses on the neck--the single joint that withstands the full load capacity. We combine mechanical testing, computed tomography (CT), scanning electron microscopy (SEM), and computational modeling to better understand the mechanical structure-function relation of the neck joint of the ant species Formica exsectoides (Allegheny mound ant). Our mechanical testing results show that the soft tissue forming the neck joint of F. exsectoides exhibits an elastic modulus of 230±140 MPa and can withstand ~5000 times the ant's weight. We developed a 3-dimensional (3D) model of the structural components of the neck joint for simulation of mechanical behavior. Finite element (FE) simulations reveal the neck-to-head transition where the soft membrane material meets the hard exoskeleton as the critical point for failure of the neck joint, which is consistent with our experiments. Our results further indicate that the neck joint structure exhibits anisotropic mechanical behavior with the highest stiffness occurring when the load path is aligned with the axis of the neck.

Keywords: Ants; Biomaterials; Exoskeleton; FE; Non-linear mechanics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anisotropy
  • Ants / anatomy & histology*
  • Ants / physiology*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Elastic Modulus
  • Finite Element Analysis
  • Hardness
  • Head / anatomy & histology
  • Head / physiology
  • Lifting*
  • Microscopy, Electron, Scanning
  • Tensile Strength