Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Saharan Ants Use Their Silver Hair to Keep Cool

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Saharan Ants Use Their Silver Hair to Keep Cool

Article excerpt

Forget the sunscreen - these ants have metallic hairs to block the harsh sun.

Saharan silver ants, or Cataglyphis bombycina, are known for their resistance to searing desert heat. In a new optical study, researchers from the Universite Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium pinpointed the geometric properties that keep these bugs cool. Triangular hairs, they say, reflect sunlight like tiny mirrors and give the ants their chrome-like appearance. The new study was published Wednesday in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

Most of the Sahara's native animal species emerge only at the coolest points in the day, when the brutal sun is low or absent. Many Saharan predators would gladly snack on a silver ant, except for one thing - these lustrous bugs leave their dens only at the day's hottest point.

With the help of special heat shock proteins, Saharan silver ants brave temperatures up to 128 degrees Fahrenheit to scavenge dead insects. Any more than 10 minutes in the desert sun spells death for these ants, so they sprint 70 times their body length every second.

But even more impressive than C. bombycina's speed is its shiny silver coat.

Last year, researchers at Columbia University used infrared cameras to study the unusual thermal-radiative properties of silver ant hair. They found that the hairs scattered light differently across the light spectrum, blocking incoming sunlight and dissipating thermal radiation upon heating.

In the new PLOS ONE study, researchers used scanning electron microscopes to trace the paths of light rays as they came into contact with the hair. The results seemed to support the conclusions of the earlier study.

Most hair, ours included, has a more or less cylindrical shape. But silver ant hairs have an unusual triangular cross section, according to the authors of the new paper. …

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