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Falling ants glide back to trunk to avoid dangers of forest floor

An amazing variety of arboreal animals have learned to glide through the forest, from flying squirrels to flying lizards and frogs, and even ?frightening as it sounds ?snakes.

Now, add ants to that list, say biologists at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (UTMB).

Gliding ants ?the only wingless insects known to actively direct their fall ?were first observed last year outside Iquitos, Peru, by insect ecologist Stephen P. Yanoviak of UTMB. While perched 100 feet up in the rainforest canopy waiting for mosquitoes to alight and feed on his blood, Yanoviak casually brushed off a few dozen ants that were attacking him and noticed their uncanny ability to land on the tree's trunk and climb back to the very spot from which they'd fallen.

"I brushed them off the branch with my hand, and I noticed that maybe 20 or 30 of them fell in unison and then made this nice little cascade back to the tree trunk," said Yanoviak via phone from Iquitos. "That's when I realized something was up with this behavior and it was worth checking into a bit more."

By painting the ants' rear legs with white nail polish, he was able to track their fall and establish that they come in backwards to the tree, hit and hang on, though they often tumble down the trunk a few feet and occasionally bounce off. They can actually make 180 degree turns in midair, however, so even when they fail the first time, they can execute a mid-air hairpin turn and glide in for another try.

"It's an amazing discovery," said Robert Dudley, a UC Berkeley expert on flying and gliding creatures ranging from hummingbirds and lizards to moths and bees. "Apparently, it's fairly common among a lot of tropical canopy ants."

Yanoviak, Dudley, a professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley, and zoologist Michael E. Kaspari, an ant ecologist at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, report the discovery in the Feb. 10 issue of
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Source:University of California - Berkeley


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