Come Sail Away

Watch how fire ants transform their bodies into living rafts

Josh Rigling via Giphy

To survive flooding, fire ants have a genius defense mechanism: they build rafts from their own bodies to float on the water.

Robert Wagner

You might even remember the enormous colonies that drifted through the floods of Hurricane Harvey a few years back.

Besides being incredibly large, their flotillas are also surprisingly strong.

The Company of Biologists
This marvel of engineering leaves researchers with questions about how ants manage to build dynamic, living structures.
PBS via Giphy


For a recent paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, researchers observed a colony of fire ants to better understand how they stay afloat.

They found that the ants take turns holding the raft together or staying dry by running atop the bodies of their fellow colony members.

And while we often see the ants collect in a big circle, they’re capable of shapeshifting to create bridge-like tendrils that protrude from the main raft.

Robert Wagner

Here’s how one raft changed shape during a three-hour time-lapse:
Petro Perutskyi / 500px/500Px Plus/Getty Images
Robert Wagner


The clever building patterns of these ants could inspire human-made engineering projects and swarm robotics.

Robert Wagner

And for the rest of us, they’ll remain a marvel — and perhaps an object of disgust as well.

Float on, little fellas.

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