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Think of it as mathematics with a bite: Researchers at CU Boulder have uncovered the statistical rules that govern how gigantic colonies of fire ants form bridges, ladders and floating rafts.
The research, published last week in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, takes a unique look at one of the strangest, and potentially painful, networks in nature. Fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) are resourceful builders, using their own bodies to create gigantic structures made up of hundreds to thousands of insects and more.
Study - Team - CU - Boulder - Franck
In the new study, a team led by CU Boulder's Franck Vernerey set out to lay out the engineering principles that underlie these all-ant structures—specifically, how they become so flexible, changing their shapes and consistencies within seconds. The group used statistical mechanics to calculate the way that ant colonies respond to stresses from the outside, shifting how they hang onto their neighbors based on key thresholds.
The findings may also help researchers understand other "dynamic networks" in nature, including cells in the human body, said Vernerey, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
Networks - Bodies - Vernerey - Materials - Shape
Such networks "are why human bodies can self-heal," Vernerey said. "They are why we can grow. All of this is because we are made from materials that are interacting and can change their shape over time."
They can also float: Fire ant colonies gained some fame in 2017 when videos from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas showed these insects riding out the flood waters by banding together into rafts.
Structures - Insectophobe - Nightmare - Engineer - Dream
Such structures may be an insectophobe's nightmare, but they're an engineer's dream. That's because while individual ants have simple brains, their colonies display surprisingly intelligent behavior. That's a trait that scientists would like to mimic as they develop new types of polymers and swarms of robots that can work together seamlessly.
Fire ants are "a bio-inspiration," said...
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