Ants aren’t known to be the best swimmers. While recent studies have revealed that more and more ants are capable of swimming, most still struggle to move in water if they can even move at all. They simply aren’t adapted well enough to be efficient and effective swimmers.
In this article we’ll look into what typically happens to ants in water and why some ants can swim while most others don’t.
What Happens To Ants In Water? Do They Drown?
A study on water surface locomotion in tropical canopy ants has documented how ants handle being subjected to aquatic settings. Depending on swimming ability, ants were categorized into three groups: strong, weak, and none.
The strong group refers to ants that exhibited consistent direct locomotion across the water surface at rates greater than 3 body lengths per second(>3 (BL) /s). The weak on the other hand, were those which had rates of less than that (<3 (BL) /s), and finally, the none group refers to those which showed no directed locomotion at all.
Simply put, we have ants that swim well, slow swimmers, and those that can’t swim at all. Thus what happens to ants in water, depends on which category they fall into.
Those in the strong group are capable of navigating through water efficiently and are thus more likely to escape aquatic predators or make it out of the water through an emergent object.
Those in the weak group, while still capable, may ultimately struggle to escape. For instance, the study showed that while some weak swimmers like Pseudomyrmex spp. and Gnamptogenys concinna were fully capable of directed locomotion, they were ultimately unable to climb the meniscus at the edge of the testing pan (20×30 cm with a depth of 2 cm), suggesting that they won’t be able to escape even if they do make it to an emergent object.
Lastly, those in the none group are pretty much lost causes. The only thing they have for them is that they can float and as long as their spiracles don’t get clogged with water, then they’ll be able to survive. However, unless they somehow manage to make it out of the water, most of these ants end up as prey to aquatic predators or eventually drown.
Walking On Water
Amazingly enough, research has also found that some ants are not only capable of swimming, but also walking on water. The ant species F. subsericea for example, has been shown to exhibit dual swimming behavior wherein some workers swim, meaning they traverse water partially submerged, while some walk by fully supporting their bodies above the water surface.
Why Can Some Ants Swim While Others Can’t?
While much more research is required to pinpoint the exact reasons why some ants can swim and others can’t, scientists have determined some attributes that may factor into swimming ability. One of such attributes is body size.
In the aforementioned study on tropical canopy ants for example, ants in the none group were found to be significantly smaller compared to the weak and strong groups. This is as the constraints on locomotion imposed by surface tension are stronger for smaller ants which will tend to have less muscle mass.
One other factor is foreleg strength. Research has shown that greater relative foreleg strength results in faster swimming in ants. This means that ants with stronger forelegs would tend to be better swimmers than others. Likewise, this also implies that ants need a certain amount of foreleg strength to be able to swim or achieve any kind of locomotion in water. Unfortunately though, most ants just don’t have enough of such strength and simply end up going nowhere as they fail to generate enough force with their hair thin legs.
Can Ants Swim In Soapy Water?
Soapy water won’t necessarily affect an ant’s ability to propel itself and weaker ants or those that can’t swim under normal conditions may stand a better chance of moving in it. That said, because soap is a surfactant which reduces surface tension, ants will have a harder time staying afloat which may mean that they’ll have a higher tendency to drown.
How Do Ants Float On Water?
Ants can float on water due to their hydrophobic exoskeletons which allow them to trap a plastron layer, or a layer of air around their bodies which decrease their densities.
Can Ants Breathe Underwater?
Ants can’t breathe underwater as water will fill-up and clog their spiracles which thus prevents the entry of oxygen into their bodies. In fact, when they’re submerged underwater, they actually close their spiracles to hold their breaths and try to live-off the oxygen already in their bodies.
Can Ants Drown?
Ants are quite the survivors. When submerged underwater they can close their spiracles and live on stored oxygen for a good amount of time. However, if they can’t make it out of the water and reopen up their respiratory system, then they will eventually run out of oxygen and drown.
While ants aren’t adapted well enough to be swimmers, some ants can swim. Larger ants with strong forelegs, specifically, have a good chance of showcasing directed movement in water which allows them to evade predators and escape drowning by climbing on emergent objects. That said, apart from some select species, most ants can’t swim and struggle to produce any sort of locomotion in water.