To cut vegetation, leaf-cutter ants need large bite forces produced by strong mandible muscles. In invertebrates, these muscles cannot be packed outside the skeleton, instead, their size is constrained by an outer exoskeleton. So, how do these small insects (most leaf-cutters are only a few mg) manage to produce forces large enough to cut tough leaves?
We approach this question in several ways: First, we measure bite forces of foraging ants. These forces in relation to the mandibular cutting forces determine the ability to cut a given material. Second, we take a closer look inside the head capsule using micro-computed tomography and quantify the size and geometry of the muscle and lever system. We use custom-written algorithms to trace up to several thousand individual muscle fibres per ant and muscle! Third, we develop predictive models enabling us to directly link size and shape of the insect bite apparatus to bite forces and cutting ability.