Fluid Fire-Ants

May 4, 2011

Brit Trogen


Fire ants aren't your boring, everyday ants. Their name gives away part of the secret; they can defeat their enemies, and even small animals, by swarming them with venomous stings. But they are also, according to new studies from the Georgia Institute of Technology, super-ants. 


It's long been observed that fire ants form raft-like structures over regions of water, and that they can even survive for weeks at a time just floating on these liquid surfaces, but the secret of how the ant-rafts worked was never known. Each individual ant has a hydrophobic exoskeleton, allowing them to walk on water when they're alone, but in groups they were thought to be too heavy, with ants at the bottom of the pile getting pushed below the surface. Now, with the help of a little liquid Nitrogen, the secret of how the floating fire ants has been revealed.


In research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was shown that fire ants form a sort of "super-organism" to deal with the challenges of water flotation. By linking legs and mandibles with a force that is 400 times their own body weight, the ant-rafts trap large air bubbles firmly underneath them, forming a group flotation device. In this waterproof weave, each ants must perform its individual function to ensure the survival of the group; a quality that may someday be endowed to robots, or at the physical level, lifejackets.


But that wasn't all that the researchers found; the ant super-organism has distinctly fluid-like properties that allow them to explore for nearby land and spread slowly across new surfaces, while maintaining their cluster until it is safe to disperse. They even keep the queen safely sequestered in the center of the super-organism, protecting her with an even tighter ball of ants.


But as with all of the best super-powers, their powers are most awesome when in video form. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the fluid dance of the fire ants!




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