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Some ants are really good at digging underground

Some ants are really good at digging underground

Ant tunnels

Digging underground provides homes for many insects and animals. Animals like badgers and prairie dogs dig underground homes. Humans dig underground to mine precious metals like gold and silver. But some ants are pretty incredible because of the large tunnel networks they dig.

Some ant species may dig several feet deep to create their passageways. The ability of the small creatures to move sand, dirt and rocks has long fascinated scientists. They wondered how ants can dig tunnels that don’t cave in.

One recent scientific study compared the ants’ tunneling ability to playing the game Jenga, where blocks of wood are stacked. The goal is to remove a block without the whole tower collapsing. Somehow ants know which pieces of dirt, rock and sand to remove to avoid cave-ins.

Maybe humans can even learn from ants to avoid mining cave-ins. Or maybe we could learn how to build robots that are good at digging. At some time in the future, these robots could be sent to the moon or an asteroid to mine. They could also be used to rescue people trapped when buildings collapse.

To study how ants work, scientists took X-rays of tunneling ants as they dug. What they found is that the insects use the pincers attached to their heads, known as mandibles, to grab grains of soil or sand and then back out, pulling the material with them. With small grains, ants were able to compress them together like a snowball and carry them out. To do this they would use their legs, jaws and even their antennae.

There are more than 10,000 known ant species in the world. Carpenter ants dig their tunnels into wood, instead of the soil. Pavement ants often make their nests in the cracks or under pavement like sidewalks and driveways. Some large ant colonies may contain millions of ants living together.

— Brett French,


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