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Why I Now Think Positive About Fire Ants

It may seem strange, but we can learn a lot about the positive power of teamwork from these little guys. Executive Editor Amy Wong explains how.

The other day my colleague Edward Grinnan forwarded an article from The Washington Post titled “The incredible floating fire ant.” Why would he send me something about fire ants? He knows I used to live in Texas, where there is no love lost for Solenopsis invicta. I still have scars from an unfortunate encounter with those nasty stinging critters. But surprise, surprise, the article actually left me thinking positive—and not just about fire ants.

In their native habitat, the rainforests of South America, fire ants survive floods by clustering together to create a raft. Yet an individual ant will eventually drown despite the tiny air bubble that forms against its uneven skin when it touches the water. “Why does a single fire ant Solenopsis invicta struggle in water, whereas a group can float effortlessly for days?” a team of scientists at Georgia Tech asked and set out to find the answer.

In their lab they dropped colonies of ants into water and used time-lapse photography to see how the rafts formed and floated. It turns out the ants link their bodies tightly together by locking legs and jaws and layering on top of each other, which also joins each ant’s air bubble to the next. The result? A raft that is stronger and far more buoyant and watertight than each ant would be on its own (check out the video below).





Another cool thing? If one ant is plucked from the raft, others move in to take its place and keep the whole thing floating. The Georgia Tech scientists hope their research will have positive implications in robotics, as well as in the development of waterproof materials and flotation devices.

So much for my negative attitude toward fire ants. Now I see they can teach us positive lessons about teamwork and cooperation and community. As much as we celebrate individual achievement, aren’t we stronger and more effective when we work together?

Speaking of joining forces to survive disaster, you can help people in the tornado-stricken South through one of the following organizations. Feeding America’s network of food banks is supplying food to affected communities. The Salvation Army has sent mobile units to Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee (you can designate “April 2011 Tornado Outbreak”) to provide food, water and spiritual support. The American Red Cross has opened 65 emergency shelters.

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