Unlocking The Secret Of The Fire Ant’s Survival Raft08:04
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If they had a motto, it would be “no ant left behind.”

That’s because fire ants, when threatened, perform amazing feats of art and architecture and acrobatics to save themselves and their communities. Among their moves: building floating, waterproof rafts, with their bodies, when it rains. And they can do it in seconds.

Researchers in Georgia have been studying how fire ants do what they do. Here & Now’s Robin Young talks to one of those researchers, Professor David Hu, who recently took unusual measures to peer deep into one of these ant rafts.

Interview Highlights

On what this tells us about ants

"It is amazing that they can do this. Inside the structure, it's very dark — they can't see, but they just have this natural instinct to build these things. They also have a natural instinct to not be lazy, so there are no freeloaders in this structure. If there were ants that were not doing their job, these things would just break apart. So they're all doing their job and they're each doing their job in the same way."

On why only the fire ants do this
"They're originally from the wetlands of Brazil, where it's flooded several times a week. When that happens, they have to pull their entire colonies out from underground, which is where they live, and they have to float around and survive in this fashion. They've been really forced to rely on each other in a way that's far deeper from other ants."

On how we can use this research

"Ants are nature's engineers. They've been trying to do what we've been trying to do with technology for the last 20 years. They can build self-healing materials. They can link together and build ... a bridge. These bridges are very different from the bridges we build out of man-made materials. Their bridges, once they sense damage, will re-heal and respond to the damage. [It] will actually become stronger, the harder you strike it. If we can do that with our bridges and our buildings, then the structures we have will become stronger, more intelligent, and more able to respond to damage."

Guest

  • David Hu, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

This segment aired on June 20, 2014.

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