The science blogosphere is buzzing with news of a study by Nathan Mlot out in PNAS documenting how fire ants make living rafts. Rafting behavior has been known for some time, enough so that fire ant researchers regularly make use of the ants’ natural raft-building to collect colonies. Until now, though, no one had looked at the physics of how such a living structure might work. The short version is that ants link together in a structure similar to waterproof fabric, repelling enough water to stay afloat.
As fire ants are native to a regularly flooded ecosystem, the new study fleshes out the biomechanical details behind a behavioral adaptation to a stressful environment. Rather than blather on about it myself, I’ll point you to some of the better coverage:
- Ed Yong’s story is headed by a nifty little graphic. (Do people still use the term “nifty”?)
- Washington Post reporter Brian Vastag has a great summary, and interviews me for a comment.
- Wired’s Lisa Grossman coaxed some nice quotes from the study’s authors.
source: Nathan J. Mlot, Craig A. Tovey and David L. Hu. 2011. Fire ants self-assemble into hydrophobic rafts to survive floods. PNAS, published online April 25, 2011. DOI: 10.1073.pnas.1015568108