In order to succeed as a species, ants need a tremendous amount of collaboration. They will share among themselves a wide variety of responsibilities, from taking care of the young, to finding and transporting food and building their nests. Recently, scientists have found a new way in which these insects collaborate, and they have observed that army ants will join together in order to build scaffolds that prevent other workers from dropping down steep terrain.
Army ants live in a difficult environment where they have to cross rough terrain by binding their bodies together in order to build highways and bridges to areas that are rich in food. Researchers have been observing this behavior for years, but during a recent expedition, they have discovered that the ants have another type of megastructure.
The researchers redirected the ant trails onto a tilting platform that was angled anywhere from 20 to 90 degrees. In order to cross this terrain, the ants would join their bodies together into a scaffold-like structure that acted as an effective safety net which would prevent other ants from falling down the steep incline.
These scaffolds were formed on inclines that were larger than 40 degrees, and the steeper the incline, the more massive the structure. The scaffolds were mostly needed when the ants were carrying heavier food items, and these structures were so effective that they prevented almost every ant from tumbling down the surface.
Researchers found out that these structures are built instinctively. As ants travelled across the incline, they would sense that they are about to slip, so they would join the scaffold creating the megastructure as a result. It is quite interesting that unlike other ant activities where pheromones are involved, building these scaffolds required little communication between the ants or any assessment of the size of the structure. Furthermore, army ants are blind, and they have no leadership structure, yet they are still able to behave at the group level in very sophisticated ways. Findings from this research can be very valuable in several engineering fields, artificial intelligence, and swarm robotics. Researchers also believe that studying these structures can also help with the design of self-healing/repairing materials and biofabrication.
It remains to be seen what other structures these ants can build. Until then however, we still have to deal with the ants in our home. Contact us today if you have any problems with ant infestations.