A scene out of the Brazilian rainforest played out in a Fairhope puddle as fire ants native to the Amazonian jungle relied on an ancient trick to survive early June’s deluge.
After their nest was submerged under several inches of water in a park, the ants managed to create a floating raft composed only of their bodies. Chained together in a network of interlocking legs, bodies and mandibles, the entire colony drifted around on the surface of the puddle.
Crawling atop the writhing mass, worker ants could be seen carrying white larvae and the slightly more developed pupae of their young, rescued from the nursery areas of the sunken colony. Giant soldier ants, perhaps three times larger than the workers, marched back and forth across the top of the living vessel like sea captains surveying the horizon. And every now and then, the queen would emerge from the center of the mass, surrounded by thousands of her minions.
Scientists studying fire ants in their native Brazil have spent years puzzling over the ability of enormous colonies there to form floating lifeboats several feet across. In the frequently inundated bottomlands surrounding the Amazon, the ants have been known to float for months at a time. The mystery lies in the fact that ants are heavier than water, and a lone ant quickly sinks. How then do thousands of ants manage to stay afloat?
Working in the Hu Biolocomotion Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology, David Hu and his fellow researchers solved the mystery. Locking together “tarsus to tarsus,” Hu wrote in a scientific paper published in 2011, the network of ant bodies and legs forms a sort of waterproof fabric…
“Our intuition of water doesn’t hold at small scales. Water acts like a trampoline on the scale of ants,” Hu said. “The ants are surprisingly elastic. They can build these membranes that are quite strong. The water doesn’t penetrate the ants, which boggles our expectations.”
“Robots of the future will have a big bucket of parts. You dump them out and assemble a machine” purpose-built for the job at hand, Hu said.
“Ants are like that. There are millions of parts. They can assemble into something, like a raft, or a bridge, and do it without central control.”
Wow! The stuff of sci-fi- novels, movies and, someday, ordinary appliances.