Fire Ants Link to Form Unsinkable Raft, Offer Biomimicry Inspiration (Video)

Fire Ants Float in a Mass on Water
Fire Ant Floating Raft.

Nat Geo Wild Screencapture

Fire ants are incredible survivalists, and that includes when they face floods. Researchers have been studying the behavior of fire ants to learn more about how they manage to live through a flood in their nest. Turns out, they link up to form an unbreakable - and unsinkable - chain, floating over the water in such a way that even the ants on the bottom of the pile survive.

Check out how it works, and why it matters. If you get skeeved out by watching a bunch of tiny bugs crawling all over each other, you might skip the video. But if you can deal with it, it's well worth it. This is pretty darn cool stuff.

Some research done by mechanical engineer Nathan Mlot of the Georgia Institute of Technology looked at the behavior not as an interested biologist or entomologist, but rather as an engineer interested in duplicating the physics behind the ants' remarkable trait. Senior Curator of Entomology for the Royal Ontario Museum explains air trapped between the ants helps keet the raft buoyant.

This behavior could help scientists create biomimicry solutions for "small, swarming robots that might someday be used to explore inaccessible areas or even clean up oil spills," reports Wired. Indeed, ants have already been studied for solutions from mimicking their swarming behavior within computers to protect machines from viruses or studying how leaf-cutter ants work with bacteria and fungi to learn how to make better biofuels.

What is extra fascinating is the various ways in which clumps of ants behave. In the water, they form such chains to be able to float with the majority, if not all, members surviving the ordeal. However, they also behave like, "honey or ketchup, and can be described using equations usually found in fluid dynamics."

Fire Ants Transfer Eggs to Tree Trunk
Nat Geo Wild Screencapture

"You could pick up a cluster of these ants and mold it in your hand. You could form it into a ball and toss it up in the air, and all the ants would stay together in one ball," Mlot said. "They're almost like a material."

It's incredible, and somewhat a testament to how little we know about such common critters as fire ants. The engineering student is smart to study these insects, as the possibilities for biomimetic inspiration seems unlimited.

Of course, if you're a hardcore animal rights activist, you might not like the strategies the researchers took for understanding more about how ants accomplish such amazing feats -- it included swirling them in jars so they would for spheres, gluing them to glass slides, and freezing them in liquid nitrogen. Admittedly, it's a sad fate for such cool creatures, though Mlot noted that not only are they an invasive species in his area, but after being bitten a few times, your heart stops going out to them quite so much and it's all cold, hard science after that.