Floating Fire Ants Form Airtight Rafts

As my roommate informs me, anyone who lives in a fire ant-infested area knows:  if it floods and you see something fuzzy floating, GET AWAY FROM IT.  Fire ants, evidently, form floating rafts that allow a colony to survive and travel when waters rise.  However, how they do this has been something of a physics mystery.  A group of engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have taken on the task and discovered just how the ants do it.

The researchers found that fire ants dumped into water quickly spread out into pancake-like rafts as the insects crawl over each other and grip their fellow ants’ legs with claws or jaws, forming interweaving patterns similar to a waterproof fabric. The grip is so strong it would be approximately equivalent to a human being dangling six full-grown elephants from the top of a building.

Their grip is airtight, so they can actually trap tiny bubbles of air in the raft, allowing the whole shebang to bob and float.  The ants totally know their business, as even if you take out some ants, others will wander over to replace them and plug the holes.  This is a larger version of what individual ants do:  they weigh so little that they can actually float on top of a stray bubble without breaking the surface tension.

Pretty cool.  Creepy, but cool.

(cross-posted to Tumblr:  Floating Fire Ants Form Airtight Rafts)

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