Ants Remember Their Position When They Need to Form Rafts

Ant reaches out to touch the water. piyapong tulachom/Shutterstock

It's an amazing thing to see a colony of ants come together to create their own floatation device during a flood. But what's even more amazing is realizing it's not simply a bunch of ants clinging to one another. Rather, there is a coordinated effort and individual ants remember their role in building the structure — and repeat that role each time.

Researchers from University of California, Riverside, recently published a paper describing what they saw when they studied a species of ant that lives in the floodplains of central and southern Europe and commonly forms rafts to survive floods.

According to Science Daily:

Workers showed specialization in their positions when rafting, with the same individuals consistently occupying the top, middle, base or side position in the raft. In addition, they found the presence of brood, or immature members of the ant society, modified workers' position and raft shape. Surprisingly, they found workers' experience in the first rafting trial with brood influenced their behavior and raft shape in the subsequent trial without brood. They believe this is the first time memory has been demonstrated in so-called self-assemblages.

The researchers watched members of the ant colony carry out specific tasks to have the best emergency response system — much like humans do. Not only are the researchers interested in comparing emergency responses in different ant species adapted to live in different environments, but they're also interested in how these findings might influence the fields of swarm robotics and nanorobotics, which often look at the traits of ants and other social species for biomimicry inspiration.

What's also amazing about ants is they know how to form the strongest structure so it's tough for them to break apart and they even resist sinking when pressed down into the water. Check out this ability in the video below:

"These elaborate rafts are some of the most visually stunning examples of cooperation in ants," says Jessica Purcell, an assistant professor of entomology at UC Riverside. "They are just plain cool. Although people have observed self-assemblages in the past, it's exciting to make new strides in understanding how individuals coordinate to build these structures."

The next time you see a colony of ants coming together to survive a flood event, you'll know that there is much more happening than chaotically clinging together. They're truly built to coordinate to withstand catastrophe.