The Saharan Silver Ant can use the specialized hairs on its body to keep it safe from the sun. They enable it to walk the dessert when all other animals cannot.
The temperatures that are reached in the heart of the dessert greatly exceed the bearable limit of pretty much any creature that inhabits these lands. One by one, every living creature turns to shady hiding places at midday hours, when the scorching heat begins to claim its victims. Only one brave little insect dares to step in the crispy sunlight in the middle of the day and that is the Saharan silver ant.
This small ant has a special weapon to fight off the lethal rays of the sun and that is a very interesting set of hairs, that cover certain parts of its body. Thus, its entire dorsal area and the lateral areas are covered inch to inch in specialized silver hairs that are capable of reflecting the light of the sun. This is how it manages to keep its body temperature at the limit of survival.
Interestingly, the hairs are completely absent on the small insect’s ventral area. This adaptation occurred because silver hairs on the insect’s belly would have absorbed the infrared radiation that is emitted by the extremely hot sand and would have essentially killed it.
While this amazing species of ant has been known to the scientific community for quite some time now, the process that enables the Saharan silver ant to employ its silver hairs to maintain its body temperature lower has been described by Columbia University physicist Nanfang Yu for the first time. His groundbreaking study has been published in Science Magazine on Thursday.
Nanfang Yu wanted to take a closer look at the silver hairs of the ant and determine whether or not they play a role in the way the ant regulates its temperature. And so, he used electron microscopy to identify the exact structure of the specialized hairs and to see how they interact exactly with several types of radiation.
According to his findings, the silver hairs have a very interesting triangular structure that has the ability of reflecting the light of the sun. But it seems that their complete set of properties is much more extensive than that. Their silver hairs have the capacity to interact with various types of electromagnetic radiation and effectively lower the body temperature of the ant.
“In the solar spectrum, which is shorter wavelengths, the hairs scatter light very strongly. These hairs have triangular cross-sections with three flat facets, and those facets create an effect called total internal reflection, which helps increase the scattering efficiency for the solar light.” explains the Columbia physicist.
The Saharan Silver ant, or Cataglyphis bombycina, uses its silver armor to ensure its survival. The silver hairs have the ability of keeping it safe from the heat in the middle of the desert for approximately 10 minutes. This means that the ant must use its 10 minutes to gather food.
This species has developed its entire lifestyle on the immense advantage that these 10 minutes offer them. And so, the feed on the carcases of other small insects that have fallen pray to the deadly heat. But they have to wait for the right time to go out of their hiding places and gather their food.
This time is usually the hottest moment of the day, when it is safe to look for food, because its prey is fresh and even its predators, that include a wide range of lizards and other reptile species, find the heat too much to bare and retreat in the shade.
Only when all the other animals have fled to save themselves from the merciless sun, the Saharan silver emerges from its hiding place. They usually go out in groups, and when they find a carcase, they work together to carry it back to their nests, where they can safely consume it. However, even with their special weapon at hand, it is not unusual that some members of the group do not make it back alive.
Now that Columbia physicist Nanfang Yu has shed light on the intricate process that enables the Saharan silver ant to walk the scorching sand of the desert in the middle of the day, when every other creature has fled for safety, this insect model could be used to elaborate new technologies that could be used on a macroscopic level. Nature has always provided us with extremely useful ideas, that have led to the development of the world’s greatest technological achievements.
Image Source: flickr