Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

Panamanian termites
Panamanian termites (Termes panamaensis). Marc A. Seid

Forget ninjas—Panamanian termites (Termes panamaensis) were the original masters of fighting in close quarters. The termites have the world's fastest mandible strike at 230 feet per second, according to a recent study at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. A whack from a termite soldier's mandible is enough to injure or kill an enemy, such as a predatory ant or a soldier from a competing termite species.

The scientists think the Panamanian termite's defense is an adaptation to battle in the narrow tunnels of its nest, where there isn't much room to maneuver. "The termite soldiers do not employ stealth or surprise as a tactic," the researchers say, "because they are facing their adversary."

How do they muster such oomph? The termites compress their mandibles together so they build up energy like a coiled spring. The strike is executed when the mandibles are released, crossing over each other in a scissorlike motion. Postmortems of invading termites found that they had not been stabbed or pierced. Rather, they'd been killed by a blow to the head.