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R Soc Open Sci. 2015 Jul 22;2(7):150129. doi: 10.1098/rsos.150129. eCollection 2015 Jul.

Functional morphology and efficiency of the antenna cleaner in Camponotus rufifemur ants.

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Department of Zoology , University of Cambridge , Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK.
Warwick Medical School , University of Warwick , Coventry CV4 7AL, UK.


Contamination of body surfaces can negatively affect many physiological functions. Insects have evolved different adaptations for removing contamination, including surfaces that allow passive self-cleaning and structures for active cleaning. Here, we study the function of the antenna cleaner in Camponotus rufifemur ants, a clamp-like structure consisting of a notch on the basitarsus facing a spur on the tibia, both bearing cuticular 'combs' and 'brushes'. The ants clamp one antenna tightly between notch and spur, pull it through, and subsequently clean the antenna cleaner itself with the mouthparts. We simulated cleaning strokes by moving notch or spur over antennae contaminated with fluorescent particles. The notch removed particles more efficiently than the spur, but both components eliminated more than 60% of the particles with the first stroke. Ablation of bristles, brush and comb strongly reduced the efficiency, indicating that they are essential for cleaning. To study how comb and brush remove particles of different sizes, we contaminated antennae of living ants, and anaesthetized them immediately after they had performed the first cleaning stroke. Different-sized beads were trapped in distinct zones of the notch, consistent with the gap widths between cuticular outgrowths. This suggests that the antenna cleaner operates like a series of sieves that remove the largest objects first, followed by smaller ones, down to the smallest particles that get caught by adhesion.


biomechanics; biomimetics; functional morphology; insects; surface cleaning

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