The Saharan silver ants (Cataglyphis bombycina) thrive in one of the hottest deserts in the world where temperatures can reach 158 degrees Fahrenheit.
The ants could die if their internal temperature gets higher than 128.48 degrees Fahrenheit but a group of researchers have revealed the strategies that these little insects use that allow them to survive the scorching heat.
The Saharan ants have developed a means to keep themselves cools and it has something to do with their uniquely shaped silver hairs.
For their study published in the journal Science on June 17, Nanfang Yu, from Columbia University, New York, and colleagues showed that the hair of the ants reflects visible and near-infrared light from the sun. The hair also helps the insects shed heat.
The ant's hair reflect most of the light that hits them and most of the energy in the visible light that were not absorbed are converted to longer wavelength infrared light that the hairs efficiently radiate away.
"The fact that these silver ants can manipulate electromagnetic waves over such a broad range of spectrum shows us just how complex the function of these seemingly simple biological organs of an insect can be," said study researcher Norman Nan ShI, from Colombia University.
The ants also have a smooth silver surface along their bottom that also reflects heat allowing the insects to forage under the heat of the day when most other creatures duck for cover against the sunlight.
"The ants' conspicuous silvery appearance is created by a dense array of uniquely shaped triangular hairs with two thermoregulatory effects," the researchers wrote. "They enhance not only the reflectivity of the ant's body surface in the visible and near-infrared range of the spectrum, where solar radiation culminates, but also the emissivity of the ant in the mid-infrared."
The ants' ability to reflect light and shed heat allows them to forage in the midday sun and search for the corpses of insects. Because most other creatures cannot stand the heat during this time of the day, the insects are able to avoid predatory animals such as lizards.
The researchers have created simulations of the effects produced by the shape and structure of the ants' hair and there is interest in using these to develop metasurfaces that are capable of withstanding high temperatures.
The findings could pave way to biologically inspired coatings that can be used for passive radiative cooling of vehicles, buildings and even clothing.