Rafting fire ants: role models for surviving troubled times

There’s nothing like a great scientific detection story. But a great bit of scientific sleuthing that also carries an embedded moral? Now that’s special. Once again, ants have provided the raw material, just as they have for earlier posts.

This time, it’s the fire ant. And the marvelous story? That emerged in press coverage last week, but at the time it was overwhelmed by the terrible tornado outbreak and the associated human tragedy. A lot was going on.

Before we dive in, however, let’s go back to the late 1980’s. It was my good fortune at that time to be involved with U.S. scientists who played a role in formulating the United Nations’ International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, and then in the implementation of that program. The program was grand in its intention but suffered from fatal flaws, and never really realized the hopes of any involved. But for me it was a good time, in large part because the population of people working to reduce disasters – whether U.S. or international – was, and remains, a truly special group. Nobody was trying to win any Nobel prize. There was always plenty of science to be done, and a heap of multi-disciplinary work – but it was all purposeful – aimed at saving lives, property, reducing poverty, making the world a better place. We all got out of bed each morning with a feeling that we might do seven billion people a little bit of good. The scientists, doctors, emergency managers, political appointees, and others that I met were a truly remarkable bunch. They were intelligent, friendly, high-minded, dedicated, industrious…they embodied all the virtues.

One of the members of this group was a seismologist. Even in this group he stood out. He was indefatigable. He was enthusiastic. He wanted to change the world…and he did. And often, at the close of meetings, when we’d be looking at a huge amount of follow-up action and not too many resources, and spirits were beginning to flag, he’d start animatedly talking about fire ants. How we needed people who were going to be fire ants – no ego, just a lot of energy. Not big or powerful individually, but in aggregate pesky and persistent. And working well as a team. I’d sort of encountered him, and his fire ant stories, late in the game. Older, more seasoned hands assured me he’d been talking at meetings in this same vein for decades.

Anyway, so when I saw the headline in last week’s Washington Post, it grabbed my attention. Brian Vastag wrote the article. He got right to the point. Congress – and you and I – could learn a thing or two from these ants. In particular, when they face imminent danger from drowning, they form a raft.

Vastag got his material from three Georgia Tech scientists – Nathan Mlot, Craig Tovey, and David Hu, who published a paper entitled Fire ants self-assemble into waterproof rafts to survive floods, which appeared in Proc. National Acad. Sci. April 25, 2011. The article goes into a bit of depth to explain just how individual fire ants rely on the texture of their exterior surface to trap a bit of air and float temporarily. But where this really comes into play is when the fire ants lock up with each other, gripping each other firmly not in any particular order or pattern, but just grabbing each other by any handy body part. In the process they create a thick mat or raft that traps a lot of air and keeps most of the ants dry. Apparently they can survive for months in this configuration, which is really handy in areas prone to frequent floods. Some of the rafts consist of ants by the thousands. The solution is not pretty. It may be a bit desperate near the edges. But it works for the survival of the larger group.

Not to sound pessimistic, but it looks as if the human race, or big groups of us, might benefit from developing a similar skill.

No. Don’t even go there.

I’m not talking about this as a human strategy for coping with sea level rise, or about biting each other by the arms or legs and floating down the Mississippi. But I am talking about an almost instantaneous recognition that our chances of survival are greatest when we see ourselves as “in it together.” The other extreme – to go into full-on argumentative mode when danger threatens – seems to be more popular at the moment, across society. However, it looks to be dysfunctional. It’s not working for us particularly well.

Note also the emphasis on “self-assemble.” There seems to be little evidence of top-down, command-and-control in this behavior. It’s emergent, grassroots.

If our problems don’t require such a physical connection, what would be the human analog to the ant rafting? Here’s a suggestion. Perhaps the analog is more in the psycho-social, problem solving domain. Instead of grabbing onto body parts, we’re dialoging, using the web to explore social networks…and maybe increasingly harnessing such networks to solve problems of ever-larger complexity and import.

Just floating an idea. Care to take my arm?

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