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Researchers Show Another Incredible Skill Fire Ants Have

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Witness the heroic efforts of a fire ant colony as they face a watery threat. Learn how 5,000 ants ingeniously create a life raft to ensure the survival of their entire community. It’s a story of survival, resilience, and collective strength in the insect world.

A new series of videos from National Geographic’s upcoming series “A Real Bug’s Life,” premiering on Disney+ on Jan 24 shows hundreds of fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) creating a floating raft to rescue their colony from drowning in a swimming pool.

The stunning video footage captures the moment when the fire ants, living beneath a water feature, come together to construct a life-saving raft. As the water level rises, the colony gathers its young and unites in a remarkable display of interlocking limbs and mandibles, forming a buoyant raft that dips slightly at the center.

Ants exhibit remarkable collective social behavior within their large colonies. However, when attempting to swim, their kicking legs create a repelling effect against each other. Despite this challenge, fire ants, when in a group of 10 or more, overcome the repulsion through a phenomenon known as the “Cheerios effect,” driven by surface tension.

This effect, analogous to the way small objects like Cheerios cluster in a bowl of milk, creates a concave indentation on the liquid’s surface, compelling nearby objects to coalesce into clusters. Exploiting this phenomenon becomes crucial for fire ants facing a water threat, particularly in their mission to safeguard their queen.

The intricate process involves bringing together larvae, pupae, and worker ants, which then interlock their legs and jaws to form an expansive raft. This raft, slightly dipping at the center, serves as a protective vessel.

The crowning touch involves placing the queen securely at the center of this collective structure, ensuring her safety amidst the watery challenges faced by the colony.

New research project from National Geographic shows another amazing skill fire ants have
Fire ants built a floating raft to preserve their colony from drowning in a swimming pool.

During the exploration of potential backyard filming locations, the discovery of an ant nest became an unexpected highlight. While activating a water feature in a pool, unaware location scouts unwittingly flooded the pool, revealing the presence of a hidden colony of fire ants.

Bill Markham, the series producer, shared with Live Science that the intricate behavior of the ants was meticulously documented with the assistance of Drexel University entomologist Sean O’Donnell. Cutting-edge tools such as macro lenses, split-level housings, and super slow-motion technology were employed to capture the nuances of this extraordinary event.

Though the team refrained from tallying the exact number of ants comprising the raft, Markham estimated an impressive count of around 5,000 ants. To their surprise, the ants demonstrated a remarkable adaptation by collecting trapped air bubbles, enhancing the raft’s buoyancy to keep it afloat.

Markham emphasized the strength of the ants’ collective effort, stating that the structure created to protect their queen could withstand a force “400 times their body weight.”

Astoundingly, these makeshift rafts can remain buoyant for up to 12 days. However, in this particular instance, the resourceful ants encountered a pool noodle, swiftly reaching dry land within a matter of minutes.

This unforeseen yet efficient solution showcased the remarkable adaptability and ingenuity of these resilient insects in the face of unexpected challenges.

Image Credit: iStock / National Geographic/Disney+/A Real Bug’s Life

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