Magazine article Science News

Pothole Pals: Ants Pave Roads for Fellow Raiders

Magazine article Science News

Pothole Pals: Ants Pave Roads for Fellow Raiders

Article excerpt

When army ants use their own bodies to plug tiny potholes in rough trails, the whole colony benefits, a new study has found.

Without those instant road repairs, a colony's daily catch of food can drop by as much as 30 percent, say Scott Powell, now at the Federal University of Uberlandia in Brazil, and Nigel Franks of the University of Bristol in England. As the ants race along paths to and from food, filling holes helps prevent traffic backups, Powell explains.

Many species of army ants send out relentless columns of hunters at night or underground, but Powell and Franks focused on Eciton burchellii, which preys aboveground during the day. Colonies of these ants grow 700,000 strong.

Rather than building nests, they spend the night in ant-gripping-ant balls dangling from an anchor point, such as the side of a tree. As dawn breaks, up to 200,000 foragers swarm out. "The pitterpatter of millions of little feet sounds a lot like rain," says Powell.

The ants' goal: to prey on other ant species, various spiders, or even something as big as a scorpion. When the leading edge of a column of foragers catches up to a victim, the army ants form a mass, grab hold of the prey, inject enzyme-rich venom to weaken it, and pull it apart.

Raiders carry bits of the victim back to the main colony, where other workers are tending the youngsters. During an entire day's expedition, the hunters maintain one principal two-way trail, from 3 to 12 ants wide, back to the rest of the colony. …

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