As It Happens

This ant travels 108 times its body length each second by 'galloping' on hot sand

Saharan silver ants are "in a way, faster than humans and even horses," says a scientist who recorded their top speeds in the scorching Tunisian desert.

A human would have to run 700 km/h to match the equivalent speed of the world's fastest recorded ants

Saharan silver ants can travel 85 centimetres per second as they gallop across hot sand in search of food. (Harald Wolf/Ulm University)

Transcript

Saharan silver ants are "in a way, faster than humans and even horses," says a scientist who recorded their top speeds in the scorching Tunisian desert.

It was always known the ants are fast, but a new study by researchers from Germany's Ulm University shows them clocking speeds of 85 centimetres — or 108 times their body length — per second. To date, they are the fastest ants ever recorded.

To reach equivalent speeds, a six-foot-fall human would have to run 197.5 metres in a single second, or roughly 711 kilometres per hour. 

"That's nothing even athletes can achieve," senior author Harald Wolf, who studies the neurobiology of arthropods, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

The findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

'They're galloping' 

To record the speeds, the researchers headed to the desert outside the village of Douz, tracked down silver ant nests in the sand, lured them with scraps of cookie crumbs, and filmed them with a high-speed camera.

Wolf says he and his colleagues were curious to learn why the Saharan silver moves faster than their larger cousins that inhabit Tunisia's salt pans, even though the bigger ant's legs are almost 20 per cent longer.

Their speed, Wolf says, appears to be related to how they run — and the environment they run in. 

These ants run 108 times their body length per second

2 years ago
Duration 0:07
Germany's Ulm University filmed Saharan silver ants clocking speeds of 85 centimetres — or 108 times their body length — per second. To date, they are the fastest ants ever recorded. 0:07

The silver ants do their speed-runs in the hot midday sun on sand that can reach up to 70 C. 

"They are scavengers and they feed on a dead arthropods, the insects and spiders. And, of course, during the hottest hours of the day, there will be the most dead insects, " Wolf said. "So that is their niche for foraging."

In part, they are protected by their silvery coats, which helps deflect the heat. But the way they scamper across the sand may also be a factor, Wolf said. 

How Saharan silver ants run so fast

2 years ago
Duration 0:18
Saharan silver ants are the fastest recorded ants in the world, in part, because of how they run. Harald Wolf of Ulm University in Germany describes it as "galloping." 0:18

"They're galloping," he said. "They use three of their six legs, all of them at one point in time, and then they change to the other set of three."

In between launching off one trio of legs and landing on the other, the ants are fully in the air with no feet on the hot sand, giving them a very long stride, he said.

But Wolf says the most interesting thing about the Saharan ants isn't their speed. It's the mystery of how they navigate their complicated desert journeys — something he and his colleagues have been studying for years. 

The ants emerge from their nests "in the middle of nowhere," he said, wander up to 100 metres away in search of food, and when they find it, return straight back to their nests.

"So how can they navigate in that way?" he said. "That is really the main research project. And on the side, we came across how these animals achieve those high walking speeds."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. 

 

 

 

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