Come Sail Away

Watch how fire ants transform their bodies into living rafts

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

Robert Wagner

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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.

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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.

Wagner RJ, et. al./Journal of the Royal Society Interface

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:

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Robert Wagner

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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.

Read more stories about science here.

Josh Rigling via Giphy