Photograph by Norman Nan Shi and Nanfang Yu, Columbia University
Photograph by Norman Nan Shi and Nanfang Yu, Columbia University

Meet the World’s Coolest Ant

How did an ant adapt to the 120-degree Saharan heat?

This story appears in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Most animals seek shade when temperatures in the Sahara soar to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Saharan silver ants seek lunch, skittering from underground lairs into the sun’s brutal rays to scavenge animal carcasses. In 2015 they were joined by scientists from two Belgian universities, who spent a sweltering month tracking the ants and digging out their nests. The goal: to discover how the species adapted to the kind of heat that can melt shoes.

Back in Belgium, the scientists looked at the ants under an electron microscope and found that their dense, triangular hair reflects light like a prism, giving them a metallic glint and shielding them from the sun’s heat. When Ph.D. student Quentin Willot shaved an ant with a tiny scalpel and put it under a heat lamp, its temperature jumped. He says the ants’ method of staying cool is unique among animals. Could this reflective type of hair protect people? Willot says companies are interested in reproducing it.