Researchers at the Ohio State University in Columbus have made a remarkable discovery about the strength capabilities of the common field ant. As the Olympians of the creepy-crawler world, ants have long fascinated scientists and the methods used to research their physical and social behaviors are becoming more and more creative. This particular study resulted in the decapitation of the ants after their heads were glued to a centrifuge shaped like a compact disc. The device was then spun until the necks of the ants could no longer withstand the pressure and it was “off with their heads!”; Thus far, not a peep from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) who apparently just are not feeling the outrage one might expect.
Carlos Castro, who is an aerospace engineer at The Ohio State University, expected the field ants to be able to withstand the pressure of approximately 1,000 times their body weight. That might seem like an over the top expectation but ants are known to be the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the insect world and previous studies have shown that they can carry heavy loads many times their own weight including the carcasses of dead birds. Thus, these were not just “high hopes” or “high apple pie in the sky hopes” by Castro, he already knew field ants were “impressive mechanical systems” that had the ability to “astound.”
In the current study, the ants may have lost their heads, but they proved that their necks could withstand the pull of up to 5,000 times their average body weight; according to Castro who clearly thinks more like an engineer and much less like an outraged PETA activist, if a person wants to understand how something works, he or she has to “take it apart.” Even Castro admits however, that the strength testing procedures he and his colleagues used seem “kind of cruel.” However, in the Machiavellian world of research, it is the common perception that the end justifies the means and, to be fair, the field ants were “refrigerated” first so that they would not suffer too much during the decapitation.
Imagine the popular “Round Up” ride common at local fairs wherein people are spun in a round metal cage until their bodies gravitate up against the wall of the ride and they are pinned there by centrifugal force until the ride stops. The ants in this study went through a similar although decidedly less fun experience as their heads were glued down and their bodies were lifted up. Once the centrifuge applied a force of between 3,400 and 5,000 of the ants’ body weight, their “tiny neck joints” ruptured.
Apparently, the tests were a bit on the messy side and according to Castro, a Plexiglas barrier had to be installed around the ant test subjects to protect the graduate students who were observing from the carnage of the ant bodies cut loose by decapitation.
If one of the research observers had been a PETA confederate, the outrage over the decapitation of ants for a strength study might have resulted in at least a blog post similar to the one on PETA’s website defending cockroaches. For now, however, all is quiet on the PETA front and Castro and his colleagues can continue their innovative research. All ant decapitation humor aside, there is a true scientific goal inherent to the ant study. Castro hopes that a better understanding of the “mechanics of the ant’s anatomy” and its ability to withstand force will someday be of use in robotics designs.
By Alana Marie Burke
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