Great discoveries lie at the edge of chaos, and nature provides perhaps the best inspiration for finding order in anarchy. Fish school, birds flock, fireflies sync and ants colonize. This type of collective behavior that forms complex and adaptive systems is what scientists refer to as emergence.
Studying emergent behavior has long fascinated engineers, and researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have uncovered a distinct behavior in colonies of fire ants cooperating in flood situations. PhD candidates Robert Wagner, Kristen Such, Ethan Hobbs and Professor Franck Vernerey studied how the ants spontaneously form tether-like protrusions that help them navigate and escape flooded environments.
They found the dynamic shape that the fire ants take on is sustained by competing mechanisms of structural contraction and outward expansion. The researchers hope their work will inspire future studies by providing swarm roboticists and engineers with ant-inspired rules that could help achieve complex functional tasks.
Their research was recently published in the Journal of the Royal Society – titled "Treadmilling and dynamic protrusions in fire ant rafts." Check out the video below to watch how the ants form their own interconnected, floating raft.