The common field ants surprised researchers because they learned that these insects have the ability to endure pressure 5,000 times their body weight. The researchers studied the neck joints of the Allegheny mound ant (Formica exsectoides) and the results of this research were published in the January issue of the Journal of Biomechanics.
Simply put, this is like the fictional hero Superman who is six feet and four inches tall (Christopher Reeve model) and approximately weighing 90 kilos. Assuming further that the average weight of a normal passenger car is around 1,300 kilos and 450,000 kilos is the 5,000 times the body weight of Superman, this means that Superman can carry 346 cars in a single lifting! That is how strong ants are based on the results of the study conducted by engineers and researchers at the Ohio State University in Columbus.
Researchers and scientists have earlier estimated that ants can withstand pressure about 1,000 times their body weight. But according to mechanical and aerospace engineer and professor Carlos Castro, head of the research team who discovered about the tremendous weight capacity, “Initially we didn’t think this ant had any extreme capabilities, but they surprised us.”
About four years ago, researchers from the Ohio State University started to look into the mystery of what makes ants as the supermen of nature. Their study was important in the field called biometrics where researchers attempt to replicate the best qualities of animals and plants and apply these capabilities to work in machines.
In this particular study, the researchers focused solely on the ants’ necks. Based on observations, ants carry weights using their mouths and the weight is carried from the head to the body by way of the neck.
Studying the neck joints of the ants revealed a mixture of materials and textures each interacting with each other. Using electron microscopy, they found out that hairs and bumps may play a vital role in how skeletal and soft sections of the neck joints work together that minimizes stress and maximizes the neck function.
The researchers wanted to take these delicate neck joints apart and see for themselves how each part work and function. They intend to use reverse engineering to study the ants. However, the use of mechanical devices like calipers is incapable of dissecting the fragile bodies of these tiny insects.
Another way to study the ants, as suggested by a colleague is through the use of a centrifuge about the size of a compact disc. After anesthetized the ants, the researchers glued the ants’ heads on the centrifuge. By increasing the speed of the centrifuge this also increased the forces pulling at the ants until their heads separated from their bodies and broke away. The necks of the ants broke at the applied centrifuge force of 3,400 to 5,000 times their average body weight.
Aside from the centrifugal method of studying the neck strength of the ants, the research team also utilized micro computed tomography in order to reconstruct a 3-D model of the neck joints. This is where they discovered that the neck contains very small folds and bumps that enable the ants to carry heavy loads. Materially, these are similar to those found in other insects but the researchers consider the answer may lie in the design that makes the ants strong.
Biologist and ant researcher Karin Moll of the University College Freiburg in Germany who was not involved in the research, opined that indeed the 5,000 figure is impressive however this does not mean that ants can carry that much weight. Moll added, “The authors showed that the ants can hold that amount, but this situation is different from carrying a load…loads that are actually carried are usually much smaller.” University of Glasgow researcher Thomas Endlein said that lifting these large weights can be a problem for ants. Not only will this require muscle strength but also balance and structural stiffness. Balancing oddly shaped and extremely heavy objects while walking, can prove to be difficult for ants too.
Castro hopes that their research can be used to help create micro-sized robots capable of carrying more loads efficiently. Aside from this, just like the soft and hard components of the ants’ necks, researchers could also find a way to combine both soft and hard parts to create stronger composite materials.
The common field ants as discovered by researchers have the ability to endure pressure 5,000 times their body weight. If indeed, this capability can be transferred to objects used by humans like machinery and robots many hope that these will be used for the greater benefit of mankind.
By Roberto I. Belda