Rather than falling haphazardly, 25 species of arboreal ants in Panama, Costa Rica and Peru can glide back to their home trees—the first known instance of wingless insects guiding their fall. White nail polish on the ants' rear legs and high-speed video revealed that after being dropped from 30 meters up, ants can swivel quickly to glide backward to a tree. They can make 180-degree turns in midair that appear to involve abdominal undulations, airfoillike flattened hind legs, and flattened heads with flanges that can act as rudders. Eighty-five percent of canopy ant (Cephalotes atratus) workers returned to their home tree after falling, frequently crawling back to the branch from which they started within 10 minutes. Evidence suggests that the ants sometimes might purposely drop off trees to avoid predators. The report landed in the February 10 Nature.
This article was originally published with the title "Descent of the Ants" in Scientific American 292, 4, 34 (April 2005)