So, Burlingame Dental Arts just posted about veterinary dentistry and patching panda teeth… and we got to thinking– man, there must be a lot of different kinds of teeth out there. Panda teeth, chewing bamboo; shark teeth, chomping fish; even bunny teeth– chowing down on salad. But what about tiny teeth? Tiny teeth that are also… tools??
This brings us to ants
Ants are amazing– they are workers, builders, and warriors. They form complex colonies and communicate to one another in a variety of ways, including smell, and their dental anatomy is largely responsible for their success.
Ants’ dental anatomy is kind of similar to ours. For humans, we have a mandible (lower jaw) and a maxilla (upper jaw)– but ants, who live very, very far from us on the tree of life, are supplied with a small pair of maxillae and a big pair of mandibles, which exist outside their mouth. It’s the mandibles that really do the work; ants use their mandibles to do a lot of things– in fact, you could say ant mandibles function as hands and arms, too. Kind of.
Lifting and carrying
Mandibles work as “hands” for ants, and ants use them to lift objects of astonishing size– sometimes larger and heavier than the ant himself. Due to the physical properties of water (hydrogen bonding, in particular) ants are also able to carry liquids, one dewdrop at a time suspended from their mandibles. Ants use their mandibles to carry their young (in larval stage) from one nest to another or away from predators or pathogens. Surprisingly, ants also engage in “social carrying” in which one worker will literally pick up another worker and haul him over to a newly discovered food or nesting site.
Just like us, ants use their mandibles to eat. Almost all species of ant have tooth-like attachments on the masticatory margin of their mandibles, called denticles, that aid them in dismembering prey, breaking apart leaves, or chewing apart your forgotten peanut butter and jelly sandwich left on the counter on a hot day!
Defense and offense
Like a lot of other animals– but less so humans– ants use their oral anatomy as a weapon. In fact, many species of ant have evolved their own caste of worker class known as “soldiers” with an especially large set of mandibles. These soldier ants defend their fellow ants against other invading ant species.
Mandibles are also used for hunting other animals that ants eat– and these animals are not always small, either. In a few species, like the Dorylinae of Africa, groups of ants can kill a large mammal by the action of their mandibles alone (although they seldom have the opportunity to). But if you fear ant bites, take heart– most are harmless to humans, and in fact the mandibles themselves are rarely used to bite. It’s a stinger.
At Burlingame Dental Arts, we can be suckers for science…
Comparative anatomy sometimes spans vast distances– like that of the difference between humans and ants– but the similarities are intriguing.