The Saharan silver ant has special adaptations that enable it to face the heat of the desert. The most amazing is its full metal jacket of silver hair.
This small ant is called Cataglyphis bombycina but is known as the Saharan silver ant because of its impressive appearance. They can be easily spotted in the sunlight, due to their silver coating. However, this is not only a very beautiful accessory, but also an impressive defense mechanism that keeps them safe from the excruciating heat of the Saharan desert.
In fact, their ability to survive in the sun when no other living creature can is actually the center of their existence, because this amazing trait is the baseline of how and what they eat and how they keep safe from predators.
The Saharan silver ants stay hidden in their nests during nighttime and all throughout the morning. Only when midday comes and the temperature reaches its highest limit, the small little ant go out in groups. Their aim is to find their prey during the 10 minutes that they can last alive in the sun that often reaches temperatures of 53 degrees Celsius or even more.
These ants are scavengers and they get their food fresh and almost roasted. They eat the insects that die do to the insanely hot temperatures of the desert. As soon as they leave their nests, they have to keep track of their movements and always bare in mind that within those 10 minutes they will have to make the return journey as well.
Furthermore, they often feed on insects that are their size or larger, much larger. And therefore the return journey is always much harder. They will look for their pray in every possible direction from their nests and if they do not find anything in time, they return empty handed. But most of the time they get lucky and stumble upon some poor insect that did not last in the scorching sun of the day. Every once in while the insect is not even dead just yet, and it is taken by the group of silver ants to their nest.
The other main reason why going out when the sun is at its strongest is the best option for the Saharan silver ants is that during that time, even their predators abandon their posts in the sun and retreat to shady places. These predators are usually a large collection of lizards and various reptiles that walk in the hot desert sand.
The most interesting aspects about the Saharan silver ant are the obviously the defense mechanisms that it uses to keep its body temperature at a the rate of survival. Firstly, the ant has abnormally long legs for an ant because this way it is able to stand higher from the sand. Secondly, it has a series of heat shock proteins that enable it to lower its temperature. And thirdly and most importantly, it has its sparky silver hair.
For a long time, scientists have liked this silver hair that they have to their ability to withstand extremely high temperatures, but the process had never been described. This week however, Science Magazine published a brand new study conducted by the a team of researchers at Columbia University lead by physicist Nanfang Yu that has shed light on the mysterious process.
They have used electron microscopy to study the silver hairs very closely. It appears that they have a triangular shape that is able to reflect the light away from the ant’s body surface. But there is more to their full metal jacket than that.
“There are two effects – first in the shorter wavelengths of the solar radiation spectrum, secondly in the longer wavelength range of the thermal radiative spectrum. (…) If you combine these two effects, you have the best combination – it will block incoming sunlight and dissipate thermal energy when heated up,” says Dr. Nanfang Yu.
The wavelength of thermal radiation is actually linger than a cross-section through the silver hair of the ant is. Therefore, the waves are absorbed instead of being reflected. Afterwords they are reflected around the internal structure of the hair. And this process actually plays an important role in the ants’ ability to keep their temperature down.
In order to demonstrate that the silver hairs were the ones who played the decisive role in the ant defense mechanism from the heat, they used specialized technology to shave the hair form a few ants and they sent them into the hot midday sun. It seems that they were absolutely right, because the shaved ants did not survive the heat.
This new discovery bares great importance to both the natural world, but also for the technological world, because this new found mechanism could inspire scientists to build newer and better technology that is able to withstand the highest temperatures on Earth.
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