Original Paper

Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 198, Issue 6, pp 465-476

First online:

Ants swimming in pitcher plants: kinematics of aquatic and terrestrial locomotion in Camponotus schmitzi

  • Holger Florian BohnAffiliated withDepartment of Zoology, University of CambridgePlant Biomechanics Group Freiburg, University of Freiburg Email author 
  • , Daniel George ThornhamAffiliated withDepartment of Zoology, University of Cambridge
  • , Walter FederleAffiliated withDepartment of Zoology, University of Cambridge Email author 

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Camponotus schmitzi ants live in symbiosis with the Bornean pitcher plant Nepenthes bicalcarata. Unique among ants, the workers regularly dive and swim in the pitcher’s digestive fluid to forage for food. High-speed motion analysis revealed that C. schmitzi ants swim at the surface with all legs submerged, with an alternating tripod pattern. Compared to running, swimming involves lower stepping frequencies and larger phase delays within the legs of each tripod. Swimming ants move front and middle legs faster and keep them more extended during the power stroke than during the return stroke. Thrust estimates calculated from three-dimensional leg kinematics using a blade-element approach confirmed that forward propulsion is mainly achieved by the front and middle legs. The hind legs move much less, suggesting that they mainly serve for steering. Experiments with tethered C. schmitzi ants showed that characteristic swimming movements can be triggered by submersion in water. This reaction was absent in another Camponotus species investigated. Our study demonstrates how insects can use the same locomotory system and similar gait patterns for moving on land and in water. We discuss insect adaptations for aquatic/amphibious lifestyles and the special adaptations of C. schmitzi to living on an insect-trapping pitcher plant.


Nepenthes bicalcarata Camponotus schmitzi Insect-plant interaction Swimming Gait analysis