How the Saharan Silver Ants Survive Temperatures Up to 158 Degrees Fahrenheit


Photo: Norman Nan Shi and Nanfang Yu

It's 158 degrees Fahrenheit (70°C) outside and that's just fine for the Saharan silver ants.

But how do the ants, which as its name suggests, live in the Sahara desert, keep cool when biological functions start breaking down when their body temperatures reach 128°F (54°C)?

Scientists discovered that the Saharan silver ants can withstand such hot temperatures because of the amazing properties of their silvery hair. Using electron microscopy and ion beam milling, Nanfang Yu of Columbia Engineering and colleagues discovered that the ant's hairs have unique triangular cross section. The hairs reflect the sun's rays in the visible light and near-infrared, and they dissipate heat in the infrared range through thermal radiation.

"Animals have evolved diverse strategies to perceive and utilize electromagnetic waves: deep sea fish have eyes that enable them to maneuver and prey in dark waters, butterflies create colors from nanostructures in their wings, honey bees can see and respond to ultraviolet signals, and fireflies use flash communication systems," Yu said to PhysOrg, "Organs evolved for perceiving or controlling electromagnetic waves often surpass analogous man-made devices in both sophistication and efficiency. Understanding and harnessing natural design concepts deepens our knowledge of complex biological systems and inspires ideas for creating novel technologies."

The scientists hope that this discovery could lead to novel materials and paints that can be applied to rooftops or cars to keep them cool.

Learn more about the amazing Saharan silver ant in this BBC clip, narrated by Sir David Attenborough:


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The silver ant's behavior and environment has a fascinating post-apocalyptic feel to it: living in an environment that is so harsh. It turns out that the foragers wait in underground chambers while scouts rush in and out of the entry, monitoring the heat of the surface. When the scouts determine that it is deadly hot outside, then the foragers get a signal to run out en masse to capture the victims of the sun.
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