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The Saharan silver ant (Cataglyphis bombycina) is a type of ant that lives in the Sahara Desert.

Saharan silver ant
Saharan Silver Ants Erg Chebbi 2011.jpg
Scientific classification
C. bombycina
Binomial name
Cataglyphis bombycina
Roger, 1859

Largely due to the extreme high temperatures of their habitat, but also due to the threat of predators, the ants are active outside their nest for only about ten minutes per day.[1] The twin pressures of predation and temperature restrict their above-ground activity to within a narrow temperature band between that at which predatory lizards cease activity and the ants' own upper threshold.[2]

The scene outside a Saharan silver ant nest

The ants often traverse midday temperatures around 47 degrees Celsius (117 degrees Fahrenheit) to scavenge corpses of heat-stricken animals.[3] To cope with such high temperatures, the ant has several unique adaptations.

They have longer legs than other ants. This keeps their body away from the hot sand,[2] and when traveling at full speed, they use only four of their six legs. This quadrupedal gait is achieved by raising the front pair of legs.[4]

Keeping track of the position of the sun, the ants are able to navigate, always knowing the direct route back to their nest, and thus can minimize their time spent in the heat.[5] They produce heat shock proteins, but unlike other animals they do this not in direct response to heat. Instead they do this before leaving the nest, so they do not suffer the initial damage when the body temperature rises quickly. This protein allows cellular functions to continue even at very high body temperatures. If they did not produce the proteins in anticipation of the extreme heat, they would die before the protein could have its effect.

A few scouts keep watch and alert the colony when ant lizards take shelter in their burrows. Then the whole colony, hundreds of ants, leave to search for food, although they need to complete their work before the temperature reaches 53 degrees Celsius (127 degrees Fahrenheit), a temperature capable of killing them.

Saharan silver ants capturing desert beetle

In the words of one researcher, the production of this protein "does not reflect an acute response to cellular injury or protein denaturation, but appears to be an adaptive response allowing the organism to perform work at elevated temperatures during temperature changes too abrupt to give the animal an opportunity to benefit from de novo HSP synthesis,"[6] further "the few minutes duration of the foraging frenzy is too short for synthesis of these protective proteins after exposure to heat."[2] This and other adaptations led to the ant being called "one of the most heat-resistant animals known."[6] Its critical thermal maximum is 53.6 °C (128.5 °F).[7]

Silver ants are covered on the top and sides of their bodies with a coating of uniquely shaped hairs with triangular cross-sections that keep them cool in two ways. These hairs are highly reflective under visible and near-infrared light, i.e., in the region of maximal solar radiation (the ants run at a speed of up to 0.7 metres per second (2.3 feet per second) and look like droplets of mercury on the desert surface). The hairs are also highly emissive in the mid-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, where they serve as an antireflection layer that enhances the ants' ability to offload excess heat via thermal radiation, which is emitted from the hot body of the ants to the air. This passive cooling effect works under the full sun.[8][9]


  1. ^ Wehner, R.; Marsh, A. C.; Wehner, S. (1992). "Desert ants on a thermal tightrope". Nature. 357 (6379): 586–7. Bibcode:1992Natur.357..586W. doi:10.1038/357586a0.
  2. ^ a b c Gullan, P. J.; Cranston, P. S. (2004-09-13). The Insects: An Outline of Entomology. Wiley. ISBN 9781405111133.
  3. ^ Yoon, Carol Kaesuk (1992-06-30). "Life at the Extremes: Ants Defy Desert Heat". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-01-14.
  4. ^ Zollikofer, C (1994). "Stepping Patterns in Ants - Influence of Body Morphology" (PDF). Journal of Experimental Biology. 192 (1): 107–118. Retrieved 2016-01-14.
  5. ^ The Amazing Cataglyphis Ant, 2006-02-26, retrieved 2016-01-14
  6. ^ a b Moseley, Pope L. (1997-11-01). "Heat shock proteins and heat adaptation of the whole organism". Journal of Applied Physiology. 83 (5): 1413–1417. doi:10.1152/jappl.1997.83.5.1413. ISSN 8750-7587. PMID 9375300.
  7. ^ Chown, Steven L.; Nicolson, Sue W. (2004-07-15). Insect Physiological Ecology: Mechanisms and Patterns. OUP Oxford. ISBN 9780198515487.
  8. ^ Shi, N. N.; Tsai, C.-C.; Camino, F.; Bernard, G. D.; Yu, N.; Wehner, R. (18 June 2015). "Keeping cool: Enhanced optical reflection and radiative heat dissipation in Saharan silver ants". Science. 349 (6245): 298–301. Bibcode:2015Sci...349..298S. doi:10.1126/science.aab3564. PMID 26089358.
  9. ^ "Press release: Saharan silver ants use hair to survive Earth's hottest temperatures | UW News". University of Washington. June 18, 2015.