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Behold the world's fastest ant, star of a future sci-fi horror flick

The movie hasn't been made yet, but it should be.

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A soldier Saharan silver ant (Cataglyphis bombycina).

Harald Wolf

If we're ever caught in some sort of post-nuclear apocalypse nightmare world where mutated ants the size of big African cats rule, we should all hope that they're some species other than Saharan silver ants.

New research crowns the resilient sand dune scavengers the fastest ants in the world, able to traverse almost 3 feet (914 millimeters) per second at top speed. Moving with such haste requires the insects to swing their legs at speeds of up to almost 3 miles per hour (1300mm/s).

The Saharan silver ant is seen in this looping GIF running at top speed.

Sarah Pfeffer

In other words, even with their tiny size, these ants might be able to keep pace with a full-size human on a slow, meandering walk. But it's not really fair to do the comparison without taking into account how small ants are. That's why a much better measure is how many of their own body lengths Saharan silver ants can cover in a single second. 

The answer: a mind-boggling 108. Consider that a Cheetah only covers about 16 of its body lengths per second. 

That means that if we ever found ourselves in that nuclear wasteland dominated by cheetah-sized Saharan silver ants, they'd be able to run almost seven times as fast as the speedy spotted cats. How has no one made this horror movie yet?

The ants have to be swift living in an overheated, sandy environment. They tend to venture out in the heat of day to scavenge the corpses of other bugs when surfaces can reach a blistering 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 Celsius). They gallop across the sand using tightly coordinate leg movements, barely contacting the ground for as little as seven milliseconds per stride.

"These features may be related to the sand dune habitat," says Harald Wolf from the University of Ulm in Germany, in a statement. "(They) could prevent the animal's feet from sinking too deeply into the soft sand." Wolf is co-author of a new study on the Saharan silver ant published this week in the Journal of Experimental Biology

He suspects the ants' mind-blowing scampers may require muscle contraction speeds at near physiological limits.

Yet remarkably, these super-fast scavengers might not be the most terrifying mutant monster movie fodder. There are faster creatures, like Australian tiger beetles that cover up to 171 body lengths per second and California coastal mites that span a whopping 377 body lengths in the same time. 

Looks like there's room for a few sequels to our massive mutant ant plot line...