Not sure if this is the correct stackexchange site - please migrate/advise as you see fit.

I'm interested in the method by which ants "break off" a small amount of soil and then hold it in their jaws (?).

To clarify I know ants break off soil in small quantities, so that a single ant carries very little soil; I'm interested to understand what exactly how this happens. For example does the ant literally pick the soil directly, or does it brush it loose first etc. Further to this I'd like to know how the ant holds the soil. Is it akin to the soil being atop a palm, or more like being held between two hands?

Broader context: I'm looking into making a model of this type of soil movement and I wanted a more detailed understanding.

  • $\begingroup$ This is definitely on-topic here @FraserOfSmeg $\endgroup$ – AliceD Feb 7 '15 at 12:12

Short answer

Ants use specialized facial structures called mandibles to cut, shape and carry soil and other matter.


you say "I know ants break off soil in small quantities, so that a single ant carries very little soil...". On the contrary I would say - Ants can carry relatively a lot of soil, as they can lift up to about 100 times their own body weight. In absolute terms, however, the weight carried is about 500 mg (Spectrum).

Ant lifting soil
Source: The World's Best Photos

The structure that ants use to break off and carry soil are their mandibles:

Ant mandibles
Source: Tree of Life Web Project

Mandibles are specialized bodily structures typical for insects, and I quote from the University of Sydney website:

The mandibles are the first pair of jaws in insects, moving laterally (i.e. from side to side) when in use. Mandible shape is strongly influenced by function and is therefore highly variable. For example a chewing insect will have strong tooth-shaped mandibles while in a sucking insect they will be thin and needle-shaped. Mandibles are used to cut, chew and tear food as well as to carry objects, fight and mould materials such as wax or soil.

  • $\begingroup$ thanks for the thorough answer. Could you help me understand how the ants don't squash (and then drop) or knock soil lose? In every video I've seen they seem to have almost unbelievable precision! $\endgroup$ – FraserOfSmeg Feb 7 '15 at 16:03

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.