Ants can build bridges without learning

(ORDO NEWS) — Even though ants have only 250,000 neurons, compared to our 86 billion, they can perform impressive feats when they team up. For starters, they know how to avoid traffic jams – a skill that we humans would certainly need – and know when to exit the game in order to make the team effort more successful.

Now, researchers have filmed fire ants (Solenopsis invicta), infamous for their nasty but potentially beneficial bites, using those skills to work their way across sticky surfaces, forming a bridge to the tasty reward of sausage.

This species of ant is well known for creating bridges from its own bodies; they can also transform themselves into floating rafts to survive floods.

They create their bizarre floating rafts by clinging to each other with sticky paw pads, claw tips, and mouths (with careful, delicate bites).

Each individual ant establishes an average of 14 bonds with neighboring ants, maintaining its buoyancy with the help of bubbles produced by their water-repellent exoskeleton.

Ants also use tools to carry hard-to-reach food, such as liquids. They place debris such as dirt particles and leaves in the liquid and then carry the soaking tool back to the nest. Other ants have gone further, using trash heaps and paths as siphon tubes to reduce the risk of drowning.

In a 2020 study, scientists at South China Agricultural University demonstrated that ants can use surrounding debris (soil particles in this case) to build a bridge across a sticky, paraffin-smeared surface. But they did it much more vigorously if the food was within 20 centimeters (7.8 inches).

“S. invicta searched for and transferred food on viscose surfaces artificially coated with a large number of particles, but could not perform these actions on bare viscose surfaces or viscose surfaces coated with a small amount of particles,” wrote Chao Wen and colleagues in their work.

“However, ants also covered treated surfaces without actual food, indicating that the inaccessibility of treated surfaces, and not food, induced the particle coating behavior.

Therefore, they may have evolved particle coating behavior to modify wet or inaccessible surfaces in their feeding areas to search for and transport food, which could provide them with a competitive advantage over neighboring ant species.”

What’s more, the ants were even able to build a soil “bridge” across a surface lubricated with a type of ethereal balm, which is said to be a powerful ant repellent.

This ability to transport particles – from glass to dirt – contributes to the important ecological process of bioturbation – the release of underground soil to the surface. Bioturbation significantly improves the permeability and fertility of the topsoil.

So as annoying as these smart little critters are when we’re out on a picnic or when they invade our homes, they’re doing a huge food-growing service. Thanks ants!


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