This image shows the mouthparts of a trap-jaw ant in resting position. The only structures really visible are the prominent elongated mandibles (in yellow) that project forward. The rest of the pieces, laying immediately below, are retracted inside the preoral cavity.
And this is how the mouthparts look fully extended, when the ant is sticking its tongue out. There are four different sets of structures here: the labrum (in green); the mandibles (in yellow); the maxillae (in orange); and the labium (in red). Each set corresponds originally, both phylogenetically and ontogenetically, to a pair of structures, although only the last three are modified limbs properly (each correspond to a pair of head appendages).
These are very complex structures, each part deserving its own separate discussion. But I wanted to thrown these images here now to serve as reference for future posts, and mention a few important generalities.
Ants display the unmodified general architecture of a biting insect. The mouthparts of adult ants are typical for what is found when comparing different insect groups, and one can readily homologize each part with a corresponding structure in a grasshopper or a beetle for example. Even the most derived mouthpart morphologies found within ants, like that of the trap-jaw ant pictured here, preserve this general pattern.
However, ants do have some uniquely derived features. They are truly prognathous insects, something uncommon within Hymenoptera (but not exclusive). While in bees and in most parasitic and stinging wasps the mouthparts hang down below the head pointing to the ground, in ants they are directed forward, always pointing to the front.
Ant prognathy, however, is not only a function of the fact that the whole head is tilted forward. Examine the image above and you will notice that the labrum, maxillae and labium are fully extended while the mandibles remain closed. That is, unlike other Hymenoptera, prognathous or not, in ants the mandibles do not fold right on top of the rest of the mouthparts at rest. Instead the main body of the mandible “steps-up” immediately after the mandible’s articulation (the rounded yellow piece at the far right), thus laying out of the way from the remaining structures.
The much derived Anochetus pictured here provides an extreme example illustrating this, but the exceptional modification is universally shared within the family. It is another unique ant synapomorphy. Obvious as it may seem once explained, I have to confess it took me a while (a few years actually) to figure out what was happening structurally in ants that was different from the non-formicid outgroups. But since then, after the explanation clicked, I cannot look at an ant without seeing it.
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- Tom Waits