Science News

Ants use their own bodies for rapid road repairs

Sun, 27th May 2007

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This week we heard some bizarre news from the world of the ants.  It seems that some types of ants are prepared to get walked all over to let their fellow ants bring home the food. Ant

A team of scientists led by Scott Powell from the University of Bristol in the UK have been studying huge swarms of up to two hundred thousand army ants in the rainforests of Panama as they go in search of food.  And they saw that some of the ants used their bodies to plug up potholes in the path of the swarm allowing other ants to walk easily over them. 

To test exactly what was going on, the researchers brought a colony of ants into the laboratory and offered them planks to walk across with different sized holes drilled in them. And they discovered that the ants select holes that exactly fit their body size. 

When the ants encounter a hole in their path, they walk around it and size it up.  If they are the right size they climb in and block it up, otherwise they leave it for another bigger ant to plug. The ants vary in length from around 2mm to 1 cm (about .4 of an inch). 

Once in place, the living floor can stay put for hours while thousands of other ants walk over them. 

And the researchers found that when ants used themselves to plug up holes, the colony was more efficient at collecting food because they can scuttle long at much higher speeds. So this shows us that the behaviour of just a few of the worker ants can have really important affects for a whole huge colony.  If only there was such a simply and easy way of mending our roads…

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