Anyone who has been outside and watched ants crawl by carrying leaves or balls of dirt or bits of food probably has realized that they are very strong creatures. Many of you have probably heard or read various figures saying that ants can carry X times their body weight with X being some rather large number. Previously scientists had believed that most ants could carry several hundred times their body weight. These estimations were made by watching what ants would carry but that isn’t a great way to determine the max amount that an ant can carry as it isn’t possible for scientists to know if the ant is carrying as much as it can or if it has no reason to carry more or if is just being lazy.
Researchers in the Ohio State Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering weren’t happy with these estimations of how strong ants were and set out accurately measure the strength of ants’ necks and to figure out what makes them so strong. Unfortunately you can’t just ask ants to pick up a set of barbells so the team lead by assistant professor Carlos Castro had to come up with another solution. Their solution involved approaching the problem in a way similar to determining the strength of a material, you stress it until it fails. The scientists started by using electron microscopy and micro-CT machines to get up close looks at the interior and exterior of the ants in order to learn about the structure of their necks. After anesthetizing the ants so that they wouldn’t feel anything, the team then glued the ants heads to a piece of material which was placed into a centrifuge. As the centrifuge spun, the heads of the ants were held in place while their bodies were drawn outward. The faster the centrifuge spun, the more force was placed on the neck of the ant. The team kept increasing the speed of the centrifuge until the ants’ bodies were ripped from the head; at this point the scientists noted the speed of the centrifuge and used that to calculate the force that the necks could withstand before failing.