Khalife, A., Keller, R.A., Billen, J., Hita-Garcia, F., Economo, E.P. & Peeters, C. (2018) Skeletomuscular adaptations of head and legs of Melissotarsus ants for tunnelling through living wood.Frontiers in Zoology, 15, 30. DOI:10.1186/s12983-018-0277-6 (IF2018 2,982; Q1 Zoology)
While thousands of ant species are arboreal, very few are able to chew and tunnel through living wood. Ants of the genus Melissotarsus (subfamily Myrmicinae) inhabit tunnel systems excavated under the bark of living trees, where they keep large numbers of symbiotic armoured scale insects (family Diaspididae). Construction of these tunnels by chewing through healthy wood requires tremendous power, but the adaptations that give Melissotarsus these abilities are unclear. Here, we investigate the morphology of the musculoskeletal system of Melissotarsus using histology, scanning electron microscopy, X-ray spectrometry, X-ray microcomputed tomography (micro-CT), and 3D modelling.
Both the head and legs of Melissotarsus workers contain novel skeletomuscular adaptations to increase their ability to tunnel through living wood. The head is greatly enlarged dorsoventrally, with large mandibular closer muscles occupying most of the dorsal half of the head cavity, while ventrally-located opener muscles are also exceptionally large. This differs from the strong closing: opening asymmetry typical of most mandibulated animals, where closing the mandibles requires more force than opening. Furthermore, the mandibles are short and cone-shaped with a wide articulatory base that concentrates the force generated by the muscles towards the tips. The increased distance between the axis of mandibular rotation and the points of muscle insertion provides a mechanical advantage that amplifies the force from the closer and opener muscles. We suggest that the uncommonly strong opening action is required to move away crushed plant tissues during tunnelling and allow a steady forward motion. X-ray spectrometry showed that the tip of the mandibles is reinforced with zinc. Workers in this genus have aberrant legs, including mid- and hindlegs with hypertrophied coxae and stout basitarsi equipped with peg-like setae, and midleg femura pointed upward and close to the body. This unusual design famously prevents them from standing and walking on a normal two-dimensional surface. We reinterpret these unique traits as modifications to brace the body during tunnelling rather than locomotion per se.
Melissotarsus represents an extraordinary case study of how the adaptation to - and indeed engineering of - a novel ecological niche can lead to the evolutionary redesign of core biomechanical systems.