An invasive insect with mouthparts like those of a “bear trap” has quietly spread in the southern United States with little notice for the last several decades.

“The fact that some of these species are spreading is interesting, in part, because these giant ants have managed to expand their territory without anyone noticing,” Magdalena Sorger, a Ph.D. candidate at North Carolina State University, said. “We know very little about these ants, including how they interact with native ant species in the areas they’re invading.”

The species Odontomachus haematodus, specifically, has spread across the Gulf Coast after first being reported in Alabama in 1956.

“Haemotodus is particularly interesting because it is larger and more aggressive than other trap-jaw ants in the United States,” Sorger said.

The mouthparts of trap-jaw ants, like this Odontomachus relictus, open up to 180 degrees. (Photo credit: Magdalena Sorger)

The mouthparts of trap-jaw ants, like this Odontomachus relictus, open up to 180 degrees. (Photo credit: Magdalena Sorger)

A trap-jaw ant with its mouth-parts closed. (Photo credit: Magdalena Sorger)

A trap-jaw ant with its mouth-parts closed. (Photo credit: Magdalena Sorger)

Other species within the Odontomachus genus expanded within the country as well while others have remained rather isolated, according to the paper published in the journal Zootaxa. These ants are native in areas of Central and South America, parts of Asia, Australia and Africa.

According to National Geographic, this type of ant does have venom, which it uses against its prey. Though not necessarily harmful to humans, ant specialist Andrew Suarez told National Geographic that the sting of the ant could be painful and could result in an allergic reaction.

In addition to using their trap-like jaws to wrestle prey, ants in the genus Odontomachus also use them to escape predators, flinging themselves from the mandibles upward. Watch how it’s done in slow motion:

“The next thing you know you have this ant flying through the air that you can’t even see. It’s moving so fast with a big stinger on the end of its abdomen,” Sheila Patek with Duke University told National Geographic . “It is really nerve-racking working with them.”

Suarez said trap-jaw ants might not be as much of a concern compared to other invasive ant species that have large colonies.

But, “that does not mean that they will have no impact,” he told National Geographic.

Front page image via Luisa Mota/Flickr.

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