Athletic by Nature (2): Insects Are Small but Mighty


Speaking of strength (read "Athletic by Nature (1)"), we may think of mighty bodybuilders and weight lifters; yet, some much tinier but equally impressive, wild athletes accomplish astonishing feats of strength. Back in 2010, researchers from Cambridge University photographed an Asian weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) lifting 100 times its mass. Four years later, a study published in the Journal of Biomechanics found that the neck joint of a common field ant (Formica spp.) can withstand 5000 times the ant’s weight*. Such extraordinary powers seem out of this world; yet, it is all down to a quirk of physics.

Scientists explain that smaller creatures are proportionately stronger than larger ones. While big animals have big muscles, most of their muscle power goes to supporting their weights and sustain essential biological functions. In contrast, with smaller bodies and much simpler internal systems, tiny creatures invest most of their muscle power in weightlifting. The points of strength vary across different ant species; for example, the trap-jaw ant (Ondontomachus) has extremely powerful mandible muscles, while the field ant neck has a microstructure of bumps and folds that support its shoulder loads.

Other famous super power lifters are some beetle species. Hercules beetles (Dynastes hercules)—as implied by the reputation of the ancient demi-god they are named after—can carry up to 100 times their bodyweight. However, champion beetles come from a much humbler background than Olympus. Surrounded by manure, lives the horned dung beetle (Onthophagus taurus) which, according to researchers, can hold 1,180 times its own weight and pull 540 times its own mass with its mighty horns.

Again and again, Mother Nature surprises us; this time, with its gifted champions. This brief account is only an invitation for eager minds to know how different amazing creatures work and to speculate “the work of Allah, who perfected all things”—Surat An-Naml (verse 88).

*It is to be noted that withstanding a weight is different from carrying a load; actual carried loads are usually much smaller because they involve other aspects, such as balancing.


The article was first published in print in SCIplanet, Summer 2018.

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