— Mike Hixenbaugh (@Mike_Hixenbaugh) August 27, 2017
As Tropical Storm Harvey continues to rain down upon Texas causing heavy flooding across a large swath of the state, strange things have been seen floating in the floodwaters. In addition to inevitable personal items washed away from over-flooded homes, CBS Dallas Forth Worth brings us this odd, floating mass of fire ants just drifting along during the tempest.
“Fire ants” is the colloquial term for a number of ants in the genus Solenopsis that share a bright red color and a deeply painful sting. The fire ants present in Texas are native to South America but invaded the United States in the mid 1950s.
— Omar Villafranca (@OmarVillafranca) August 27, 2017
One of the most interesting behaviors of these creatures, though, is their ability to form dense structures by locking their bodies together. These structures are even able to allow the ants to float on top of running water without the insects drowning.
Mike Merchant, entomology specialist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, explains that “they use the wax together on their bodies to keep the queen and other members of the colony in the middle of the ball dry so they don’t suffocate.”
The worry is that these fire ants will restart their colony wherever they reach dry land, which could be dangerous for whoever happens to live where they come aground.
While this situation may be seem perilous, the way fire ants form together displays interesting mechanical properties that engineers hope to someday replicate for man-made materials.
This bizarre but practical animal behavior can possible teach humans much about how to create materials with new, interesting properties.