The survival of living things in extreme conditions is always fascinating. There are places on Earth, such as the Sahara Desert, where the temperature on the ground can soar to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Even in that extreme heat there are living things functioning very well in conditions that would be lethal to most forms of life.
Extreme survival is a way of life for the Saharan silver ants (Cataglyphis bombycina). The predators of these ants are desert lizards that retreat into their burrows in the heat of the day. Some of the ants keep watch to let the others know when the lizards are gone. Then the ant colony makes its food-search expedition. They come out into the full Sun and intense heat to scavenge animal carcasses. The picture shows them devouring an engorged camel tick.
The question is, “How do they survive the heat?” They have longer legs than most ants, and that keeps their bodies farther from the hot sand. They also travel across the sand at high speed (2.3 feet or 0.7 meters per second) using only four of their six legs to keep fewer feet on the ground. Also, their bodies produce heat-shock proteins that help their cells cope with the stress of the high temperature. Many animals produce heat-shock proteins, but not until they are exposed to extreme heat. The Saharan silver ants are programmed to produce those proteins before heat exposure to prepare them for what’s ahead.
Even with those adaptations, they are still exposed to the direct rays of the Sun. Scientists used electron microscopes to find the secret of the Saharan silver ant’s survival. The ants are covered with microscopic hairs that are not round or oval in cross-section like most hairs. They have a triangle shape to act as prisms. This shape reflects both the visible and infrared (heat) energy from the Sun away from their bodies. Because of these tiny prisms, the ants display a metallic shine. They look like metallic beads rolling quickly over the desert sand. No other desert creature has this form of reflection. Saharan silver ants are among the most heat-resistant creatures in the world.
Like many things in nature, engineers are looking into how we can imitate the prism method of these ants to protect humans from the dangers of extreme heat. Designing something that can reflect the heat this efficiently requires a deep understanding of optics and the nature of light and heat energy. The wisdom of the Creator shines brightly in the reflected light coming from the Saharan silver ants.
–John N. Clayton and Roland Earnst © 2017