clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Scientists sent ants into space. This is what they looked like.

Ants — found on every continent besides Antarctica — apparently do okay in space, too.

Even though microgravity caused these ants (sent up to the International Space Station as part of an experiment) to frequently slip off the surface of their plastic boxes, they were usually able to grab back on after three to eight seconds of floating (you can see this happening to one ant in the top right):

floating ants

As Jonathan Webb of the BBC reports, these pavement ants were part of an experiment by a group of researchers led by Stanford biologist Deborah Gordon.

"Sometimes they would grab onto another ant and climb back down," Gordon told the BBC. "Sometimes, they somehow managed to just flatten themselves back onto the surface." Results of the experiment, conducted last year, were published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution this week.

ants astronaut

The formal experiment was a test of whether the ants could coordinate to search their environment, as they do on Earth. At the start, they were housed in a small corner of their plastic box, but over the course of a few minutes, astronauts removed barriers from it, allowing them to access new territory.

A comparison group of ant colonies on Earth were able to spread out and survey the entire environment within five minutes. Because of the difficulties of microgravity, the space ants weren't able to cover all the territory within the same time period, but they still managed to spread out and see most of it.

The point of this seemingly absurd experiment is to better understand how ants manage to coordinate their movements on Earth, despite the absence of any leader.

Though this is the first time ants have been sent to the International Space Station, they were also launched on the Space Shuttle as part of a 2003 experiment. And The Simpsons — a show that has a surprisingly good track record of farsighted predictions — showed an ant experiment in space way back in 1994. Of course, it also showed Homer crashing into the ant farm while eating chips, causing a catastrophe:

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.