Fire ants may help mankind build self-healing bridges

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

fire ants bridge
Fire ants build self-healing super bridges that could teach humans a thing or two about construction and futuristic materials.

When fire ants are in trouble, they can come together to form a “super-organism” that might hold the answers to building self-healing bridges. Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have studied how a crowd of fire ants can merge to create stretchy, thick materials.

See, these fiery insects are used to living in very tough environments, and so they’ve evolved to deal with dangerous situations. “They live in these places that are flooded, and they have to build things that are resilient to forces because they live in a very abusive environment,” explains David Hu, a mechanical engineer at Georgia Tech. “And we want to understand what the properties of this material [are] that allows them to respond to these environments.”

The little red creatures from Brazil are able to take on flash (surprise) floods by linking themselves together and creating a living life raft or bridge.

So, Hu believes, “You study one ant, it’s basically a robot. But then you combine them all together; it’s not just a swarm, it’s also a building material.” What’s weird about this grouped ant “material” is that it gets stronger by shrinking and tensing up. Even when scientists messed with the bridge, it just kept adapting to them. Apparently, the fire ants could morph from a solid kind of state to a liquid one, using jaws, arms, and legs to move, break, and reform themselves.

“The way nature does things is very different from the way we do,” said Hu. “We build things out of usually solid blocky square structures that have to be rebuilt every time they’re broken. And biology is totally opposite. They’re usually squishy, usually round, and usually they self-heal.”

Images courtesy of Alison Bockoven on 6legs2many.