Weird and Wonderful adaptations part 1: Silver ants.

This is the first of a series of posts about specific species or genera and the extraordinary adaptation they have. This could be a behavioural or physical adaptation. If this is a series you would be interested in please let me know by liking the post, commenting or adding yourself to the mailing list found at the bottom of every page. You can also let me know by joining our Facebook page. I hope you enjoy!

Today’s ant is among the most beautiful of species: The Saharan Silver ant, Cataglyphis bombycina. As the name suggests, this species lives in the Sahara desert. They feed on any animals unfortunate enough to have perished in the hot sun. Air temperatures can exceed 47°C with the ground itself becoming even hotter. Most insects boil from the inside in such heat and become food for the ants. Tasty! How on Earth do the ants survive?! Well, hypothetical reader, that is an interesting question! If their body temperature reaches 53 °C they are at an extreme risk of death. That is only 6°C between the air temperature and death. Death isn’t exactly ideal so these ants have a few tricks up their sleeves. The first is the most obvious, their gorgeous colour!

Cataglyphis bombycina workers and soldiers at a nest entrance.

Their bodies are covered with silver hairs which makes them look like they have been painted. These hairs reflect as much sunlight as possible meaning that the ants warm up slower. They still warm up but these hairs buy them precious seconds or even minutes to prevent them from dying like the insects they feed on. In some cases, a few extra seconds is all they need but we will get to that later. The hairs on the backs and bellies are very course. They have a huge surface area which helps them act like radiators. These help the ants lose some of the heat they absorb which gives them even more chance of surviving in the hot desert sun.

Although these colours could make them very obvious to predators it is not a huge worry. This is because predators are far and few between in the Sahara. I mean would you live in the middle of a desert just to eat some ants? Not worth it really. There are some lizards that feed on them but it just isn’t for me personally. These lizards eat loads of the workers so good for them I guess.

Saharan silver ant, Cataglyphis bombycina, soldier. Big mandibles=Big pain.

Their next trick is at a cellular level. When animals get very hot they produce Heat Shock Proteins. These make sure an animal’s cells keep doing…whatever cells do. If they stop, the animal dies. As an animal’s goal is to not die they are very useful. So, do these ants produce more? Nah. These bad boys start producing these before they even leave the nest! Not only that, they produce unique proteins not found in other ants! So they greatly reduce the damage they take from the extreme heat. Very cool. Not literally but still. This gives them a nearly unparalleled advantage for living in such a desolate place.

The penultimate adaptation we will discuss is their legs and how they walk. Now you may be thinking “Alex you big dummy, all ants have legs and can walk!” Well dear, relentless reader, you’d be wrong. There are some ants that can’t walk! So there! Bet you didn’t see that coming. If you want me to make a post about them share this post, comment below and/or join our Facebook page and let me know. Now back to our regularly scheduled ant post.

These desert ants have very long legs which means they can hold their bodies far from the ground where it is hottest. It is a small distance but adds a few extra seconds they can survive out of the nest as there can be a difference of several degrees. Another way these long legs help is in the ants’ speed. We have covered this in another context here if you want to read that too. They are the fastest ants in the world and are among the fastest animals alive in proportion to their size. The best way to avoid being cooked by the sun is just to avoid it. They need to forage for food but the less time they are in the sun the better. So they run 100 times their body length every second! This means they can rush out, grab the food and rush home. Also, running this fast means the air around you appears to create a breeze which further cools them down. Simple and elegant but it works.

The final point I will cover is how they navigate. These ants navigate by looking at the position of the sun and counting their steps. This lets them cut corners and head back to their nest in straight lines. This reduces their time in the sun even further. We all know how much I love saying “I will talk about this in a future post” but I will be talking about ant navigation and communication in the future. I will get there eventually. We know they count their steps because scientists took a closely related species and put them on stilts that made their stride 50% longer. The ants walked 50% further than they needed to on their way home.

An ant on stilts. You now know what that looks like, Cataglyphis sp.

This all indicates an ability to remember and even calculate! They use all of these factors to run in straight lines which means they can do some basic math to determine direction. That means they have better math skills than the average university student. As a university student myself I can confirm this. This is a serious suggestion of ant intelligence.

I hope you enjoyed this post. There are plenty of other posts to keep you busy if you want to learn more. If you would like to participate in polls and other questions please join the Facebook page as I have a few things coming out soon. If you really want to support the site please consider donating by clicking the button below. Thanks,

Alex.

References

Gullan, P.J. and Cranston, P.S., 2014. The insects: an outline of entomology. John Wiley & Sons.

Hölldobler, B. and Wilson, E.O., 1990. The ants. Harvard University Press.

Pfeffer, S.E., Wahl, V.L., Wittlinger, M. and Wolf, H., 2019. High-speed locomotion in the Saharan silver ant, Cataglyphis bombycina. Journal of Experimental Biology222(20), p.jeb198705.

Shi, N.N., Tsai, C.C., Camino, F., Bernard, G.D., Yu, N. and Wehner, R., 2015. Keeping cool: Enhanced optical reflection and radiative heat dissipation in Saharan silver ants. Science349(6245), pp.298-301.

Willot, Q., Simonis, P., Vigneron, J.P. and Aron, S., 2016. Total internal reflection accounts for the bright color of the Saharan silver ant. PLoS One11(4), p.e0152325.

Willot, Q., Mardulyn, P., Defrance, M., Gueydan, C. and Aron, S., 2018. Molecular chaperoning helps safeguarding mitochondrial integrity and motor functions in the Sahara silver ant Cataglyphis bombycina. Scientific reports8(1), pp.1-8.

Wittlinger, M., Wehner, R. and Wolf, H., 2006. The ant odometer: stepping on stilts and stumps. science312(5782), pp.1965-1967.

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