Ant Weight-Lifting 'Champ' Hoists 100x Its Own Weight

weight lifting weaver ant photo
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To a human, 500 milligrams is the size of a vitamin pill. But to an ant, it's 100 times its body weight, making lifting it the equivalent of the average American man hoisting 19,000 pounds -- with his teeth.

That's just the feat one of these humble insects was recently captured performing in an award-winning photograph by a British scientist.Dr. Thomas Endlein from the University of Cambridge photographed an Asian weaver ant holding a 500 milligram weight in its jaws, an image named the winner of the first Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) science photo competition. Reports the Daily Telegraph:

Asian Weaver ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) can carry weights of more than 100 times their own body weight whilst upside down on a smooth surface. To do this, they have incredibly sticky pads on their feet. However, this does not stop them from running quickly across such surfaces.

Better Glues Through Biomimicry
Endlein took his award-winning photograph while researching how ants are able to do those two seemingly contradictory things. "Ants can change the size and shape of the pads on their feet depending on the load they are carrying," he told the Daily Telegraph. "If they have to carry heavy loads they increase the contact area, and when they need to run they decrease it." He added that "the pads on ants' feet are self-cleaning and can stick to almost any type of surface," besting any kind of man-made adhesive.

Understanding how ants do what they do could help people develop better glues, an approach known as "biomimicry" because it involves imitating natural systems and designs to innovate new products or improve old ones. The technique has perhaps most famously yielded Velcro -- modeled after the way burrs stick to clothing, fur, or hair -- and may bring us better solar panels based on moth eyes or butterfly wings.

There were other intriguing entries in the science photo competition, including a somewhat freaky close-up of a New Caledonian crow "using a stick to fish food out of a small hole" from the perspective of its larva prey. But Endlein's image, in addition to being stunning on its own, has such fascinating science behind it, it's no wonder it stood out in the BBSRC's search for "images that capture the excitement of new knowledge, the intricacies of research or the sheer beauty of the natural world."