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Photo by Nathan Mlot (Georgia Institute of Technology)

File this under the “hmmm…” and “oookey…” category:

“In the first serious study of the physics of fire-ant rafts, researchers have described how the insects form floating, waterproof islands.

In nature, the rafts allow fire ants to survive epic rainstorms in their native Brazil. In the lab, they could help inspire designs for small, swarming robots that might someday be used to explore inaccessible areas or even clean up oil spills.

Even though ants’ exoskeletons naturally repel water, a lone ant dropped in a bucket will flounder. But whole colonies of fire ants can float downstream for weeks at a time when flushed from their underground nests. Mlot and his graduate advisor, David Hu, wondered what held the dense mass afloat — and whether it could be harnessed for other applications.

“How are the ants actually linking in the raft?” Mlot said. “We could speculate all we wanted, but the only way to know for sure was to get visual data.”

Read more about fire ants and their impending invasion of Earth via water over at Wired where you also can watch the videos of the study.