Emerent biologist Edward O Wilson once called insects and other invertebrates “the little things that run the world.” They’re essential to nature, as they aerate soil, disperse seeds, break down organic material and provide habitat for other animals. They’re also omnipresent, with more than 15,700 named species and many more still undiscovered. Yet, despite their ubiquity, it’s not easy to get an accurate picture of ant numbers. Scientists have made educated guesses, but systematic estimates of ant abundance are lacking.
The ants’ ability to carry such large loads has been partially explained by their tough exoskeletons. They don’t have internal bones, which allows them to focus their muscles on lifting objects. They’re also incredibly powerful for their size, with neck joints that can withstand pressures of up to 5,000 times their body weight.
A team at Ohio State University recently tested how far an ant’s neck could bend by placing Allegheny mound ants in a centrifuge. They glued the ants’ heads to the centrifuge, and then spun them around at a rate similar to a souped-up version of a carnival ride. The ants’ necks didn’t rupture until the force above them reached 350 times their body weight.
This is a huge amount of force, but it’s not the highest that ants can withstand. Doubling an ant’s volume and mass would double its strength, but it wouldn’t be capable of lifting anything close to the mass of a human being.