Researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Zürich have teamed together to conduct a study that shows the Saharan silver ants (Cataglyphis bombycina) are uniquely equipped to survive the desert heat, making it through up to 70 degrees Celsius without letting the sun rays ruin their day.
The remarkable ability is known as “thermophilic scavenging” and is due to the insects’ uniquely shaped array of dense triangular hairs. The hairs have a metallic, silvery appearance that caused assistant professor Nanfang Yu of Columbia University to refer to them as “a droplet of mercury”.
They act as a kind of heat-resistant surface that has two (2) thermoregulatory functions that allow the ants to make it safely through their day. First off, they improve how reflective an ant’s physique is in the context of the close by and almost infrared vary of the spectrum. The second function serves to improve how emissive an ant is within the mid-infrared.
Professor Yu gave a statement explaining that, essentially, “Such biologically inspired cooling surfaces will have high reflectivity in the solar spectrum and high radioactive efficiency in the thermal radiation spectrum”.
He went on to say that the case of the silver ants is a great example of how evolution has caused the development of specific physical features that a species needs in order to get through a specific physiological task and survive a specific hostile environment. It this particular case, their unique physical characteristics keep the Saharan silver ants from getting overheated.
But he also stressed that even though there have been several studies in the past that have tackled the issue of physical optics in living creatures in the ultraviolet spectrum, the scientific community still has a lot to learn when it comes to the role that infrared light plays in their lives. He notes that even light that is invisible to the human eye still plays an essential role in the life of various organisms.
For the study, Yu and his team looked at Saharan silver ants using electron microscopy as well as ion beam milling, and noticed that they typically leave their nest to look for food for roughly ten (10) minutes during the time of day when predatory lizards retire into the shade and no longer pose a threat to them. This also happens to be the time of day when sand temperatures hit something like 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit).
They also saw that the insects stay cool by dispersing visible and near-infrared light off of their bodies and that they use thermal radiation to send out excess heat.
The functions of the dense metallic hairs help the ants drop their body temperature by somewhere between five to ten (5 to 10) degrees.
The researchers hope that their work and the discovery of the silver ants’ cooling mechanism will inspire engineers to invent newer, better heat-resistant surfaces that people can use to protect themselves and their vehicles, buildings and instruments during the excruciatingly hot summer days that we’ve seen in recent years. The technology could potentially even be used to protect clothing.
The team is also thinking about looking at other animals that live in extreme habitats in order to get a sense of how they survive. Deep-water fish are already known to have eyes that allow them to move and hunt in the dark, while fireflies are known to communicate among themselves via a flash communication systems.
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