I have been accused, sometimes on this very site, of having an excessively morbid cast of mind, but you must admit that it is not my fault that this world is a breathing, pulsing carnival of roiling horrors. I did not invent ants. I am not responsible for them, nor for the fact that they occasionally join up in a twitching ball by seizing one another in their respective, wretched jaws and take to the sea as a horrid cannibal ship. From New Scientist:
The ants evolved to form rafts to survive the tropical wet season in their native home, the Amazon rainforest. Entire colonies can escape flooding mounds in seconds, mobilising into buoyant heaps and floating safely to their next settlements.
I could, perhaps, begrudgingly allow that, were it not for the details of their escape methods.
Previous work revealed that the ants create their unusual groupings by grasping each other’s legs and jaws. In lab experiments, David Hu at the Georgia Institute of Technology and his colleagues found that the ant bundles can act as both a solid and a viscous liquid. Balls of ants will bounce back to their original form after being stretched or smashed, like rubber. The groupings will also flow slowly around obstacles.
No. No. This hideous, writhing ant-mass, all tooth and jaw, cannot also defy the laws of physics and turn into liquid and fling itself around rocks and trees and other barriers. The ant-balls must be stopped by something. Can they turn into vapor and drift into the clouds? Can they take the shape of a single, giant ant that is capable of eating parrots and small mammals? Can they open their gnashing mandibles in unison and hiss “Alive…alive,” with great effort? Can nothing stop, can nothing kill them?
The ants can act as tiny, resistive springs by flexing and extending their legs, and they break and reform connections with their neighbours to create a flow around external forces, like being prodded with sticks. Importantly, rafts of live ants are significantly more elastic than those made of flash-frozen dead ants.
The flash-frozen dead ants will not stay dead, of that much I am sure. They will slowly but relentlessly writhe and twitch themselves back into mindless, deadly life.
“Imagine thousands of people linking their arms together, but everyone has six arms instead of two, and all of their limbs have tiny hooks and adhesive pads on them,” says Hu. “That’s why fire ants can do such dynamic restructuring.”
Why would anyone imagine that. Why can’t I stop imagining it now?
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.