Sahara desert ants: A study in adaptability

sahara desert ant

The Sahara desert is about as unforgiving an environment as exists on Earth.

The African desert is characterized by intense heat and a scorching sun, especially during the hot season, when surface temperatures can reach more than 150 degrees during midday.

Most living organisms wait out the broiling heat in the shade, but not the Sahara desert ant, which seizes on the opportunities presented by the high temperatures.

Once the heat becomes unbearable for other species, the Sahara desert ant (Cataglyphis bicolor) emerges from the shade of its burrow to feast on the corpses of insects that have succumbed to conditions.

This species is reported to be able to forage in surface temperatures of up to 158 degrees for short periods despite the fact that it lives in an environment which has almost no identifiable features, according to the BBC.

Several abilities enable the Sahara desert ant to accomplish this feat:

  • While venturing out it periodically takes measurements of its angle in respect to the Sun, which allow it to plot a straight line back to its nest;
  • It relies on a unique odor signature that can guide it back to its home; and
  • It appears to use an internal pedometer to count its steps in a harsh setting where odors quickly vanish, enabling it to “count back” to its nest.

Being able to withstand such extreme heat reduces competition for food from less thermo-tolerant scavengers and likely reduces its chances of running into a predator.

“Three main characteristics and behaviors allow the Sahara desert ant and other thermophilic ants to be active in temperatures that would quickly kill most other animals,” according to the BBC. “They are quick; Cataglyphis fortis and Cataglyphis bombycina, its close relatives, have been clocked moving at one meter (3.3 feet) per second. Their relatively long legs mean temperatures at the height of their bodies are 6-7 degrees cooler than on the ground.

“They also pause on dry stalks of grass onto which they off-load excess body heat,” the news service added.

These abilities allow the Sahara desert ant to venture out at midday for 3-5 minutes at a time. Given the speed at which it can travel, Cataglyphis bicolor has the ability to travel farther from its nest than any other creature that lives in the Sahara with respect to size.

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