Invasive tick is ‘here to stay,’ and here’s where it could spread next

An invasive tick species, new to the U.S., has already popped up in nine states, and a new study suggests that the species could spread much further. This tick, called the Asian longhorned tick (Haemaphysalis longicornis), is native to Asia and was first identified in the U.S. in 2017, when it was found on a … Continue reading “Invasive tick is ‘here to stay,’ and here’s where it could spread next”

An invasive tick species, new to the U.S., has already popped up in nine states, and a new study suggests that the species could spread much further.

This tick, called the Asian longhorned tick (Haemaphysalis longicornis), is native to Asia and was first identified in the U.S. in 2017, when it was found on a sheep in New Jersey. Since then, the tick has been detected in eight other states: New York, Virginia, West Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Maryland, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But the new study, published today (Dec. 13) in the Journal of Medical Entomology, suggests that the tick could spread to much of the eastern U.S. and parts of the Midwest, as well as a small section of the Pacific Northwest.

Researchers used climate data from the tick's native habitat, which includes parts of China, Japan and Korea, to predict where the tick could spread in North America. Then, they created a statistical model to determine habitats that were likely suitable for the tick. [5 Things to Know About the New Tick Species in the US]

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  • The study found that much of the eastern U.S. coast was suitable for the longhorned tick, with areas as far north as Maine and as far south as northern Florida predicted to be at least moderately suitable. The tick could also appear in Gulf Coast states as far west as Louisiana, as well as in Midwest and southeastern states, including Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. A small section of the Washington, Oregon and Northern California coast was also found to be highly suitable for H. longicornis, the study found.

    "The Asian longhorned tick is a very adaptable species," study author Ilia Rochlin, an entomologist and researcher affiliated with Rutgers University's Center for Vector Biology in New Jersey, said in a statement. "The optimal tick habitat appears to be defined by temperate conditions — moderate temperature, humidity and precipitation."

    Indeed, the suitability of other areas outside the predicted regions was limited due to warmer temperatures in parts of the south, cold temperatures in the north and a dry climate in the west, the study said.

    Last month, the CDC announced that it is working with experts in veterinary medicine, agricultural science and public health to better understand the potential impact of the longhorned tick in the U.S.

    One concern is that this tick poses a threat to livestock. Unlike most tick species, longhorned ticks can reproduce asexually and lay massive numbers of eggs. A single female longhorn tick can lay up to 2,000 eggs at a time, the CDC said. Due to these large numbers, longhorned ticks can cause severe infestations in livestock, leading to weakness, anemia or even death in the animals.

    There is also concern that the tick could spread diseases, as it does in other parts of the world. But so far, no cases of disease tied to these ticks have been reported in the U.S., according to the CDC.

    Unfortunately, now that the tick has arrived in the U.S., it's probably here to stay, Rochlin said. The longhorned tick "will be difficult to impossible to eradicate" given it's ecological adaptability and ability to reproduce asexually, Rochlin wrote in his paper.

    But studies like these can alert public health officials and veterinary experts as to whether they are in a moderate- or high-risk area for the tick to inhabit.

    "Hopefully, this awareness will lead to increased surveillance and expanded public outreach and education," Rochlin said.

    He noted that the model was intended to determine the potential tick habitat on a large scale but not where the ticks could be at the local level, such as the specific counties at risk. To determine that, "we need to learn more about this tick species' biology, ecology and local distribution," Rochlin said.

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    Originally published on Live Science.

    Fresh Christmas trees can be crawling with spiders, mites and other bugs: What you need to know

    Some would argue there’s nothing better than a live, freshly cut Christmas tree to bring joy and holiday spirit to your home ahead of the jolliest day of the year. The smell of fresh pine, the fun of picking out the perfect tree with your family and the colorful decorations — but there is a potential downside: insects.

    These holiday staples can harbor certain insects such as mites and bark beetles.

    'RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER,' CHARLIE BROWN AND OTHER HOLIDAY CLASSICS SPARKING CONTROVERSY

    In fact, “several hundred baby insects or spiders can be on a single tree,” the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach warns. Gardening company Safer Brand reported in 2017 that as many as 25,000 bugs (many of which are microscopic) can be found on a single tree.

    But there's no need to fret.

    "These 'accidental invader’ insect and spider pests are harmless and should not be viewed as a disruption to the festivities,” the university added. The North Carolina State Extension also noted that it’s relatively rare to find pests on a tree in the first place.

    But with Christmas Day just around the corner, it's better to be safe than sorry. Read on for a look at some of the critters that could possibly enter your home — and what to do if you find them.

    Aphids

    Aphids are insects that “use their piercing, sucking mouthparts to feed on plant sap,” the University of Kentucky’s Department of Entomology says online. These critters are typically found in colonies and have the ability to fly.

    These creatures are often found on Christmas trees, and a certain type — Cinara aphids — are sometimes mistaken for spiders or ticks. Another, balsam twig aphid, can appear on “true firs” the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry states online.

    Doug Hundley, a retired pest management professional and spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association, told TODAY these critters are “harmless hitchhikers” and typically go unnoticed by homeowners.

    "They tend to move off of the tree once it starts to dry out. Some years they are more common than others. This was a very wet fall, and so I don't think we're seeing many — if any — problems with aphids," Jill Sidebottom with the NC State Extension told Fox News.

    Also, they aren’t known to feed on houseplants, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry.

    Spiders

    While these eight-legged creatures may scare some, the ones typically found on Christmas trees shouldn’t cause homeowners to worry.

    In fact, “spiders found on Christmas trees are predators of insects and are not dangerous to people or pets. They are either overwintering species that have become active or spiderlings that have hatched after being exposed to warm temperatures,” the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry states.

    These spiders may leave the tree and form webs nearby. But these can be easily removed with a vacuum cleaner, the bureau states, noting the spiders brought in with the tree “are not [an] indoor species and will die in a short time because of their new, unsuitable environment.”

    Praying mantises 

    Video

    Beware of the light brown, walnut-shaped shaped masses that can occasionally be found within the limbs of a freshly cut tree. These masses are likely a  praying mantis egg sac, which can contain up to 400 unhatched eggs, according to Safer Brands.

    “These eggs will begin to hatch after being indoors for several weeks. When this happens, numerous tiny mantids swarm over the tree seeking food. Since they are cannibalistic they will eat each other if no other food is available,” the  Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry explained.

    DOES YOUR CHRISTMAS TREE HAVE WALNUT-SHAPED MASSES? 'DON'T BRING THEM INSIDE,' VIRAL POST WARNS

    Cut off the twig containing the mass and place it outside on an “evergreen shrub or tree outdoors,” the bureau recommends, explaining these eggs will hatch in the spring when the mantises have better access to a food source.

    "They are large, and most retailers know to look for them and remove them. Inspecting a tree for the egg mass is the best way to reduce the likelihood that they would hatch out in the home," Sidebottom said.

    Mites

    Mites can sometimes be found on Christmas trees, but they will typically remain there and go unnoticed, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry.

    “Several species of bird parasites may be found in nesting material after the birds have abandoned the nest. Although these mites are generally not present on the trees in winter, bird nests on the tree should be removed to assure that no mites are brought into the home,” the bureau adds.

    In fact, "mites seldom move off of cut trees. They can sometimes be found on trees, but they are typically treated for by the grower. I only remember one growing season when it was exceptionally warm and dry in the fall that they were a problem," Sidebottom said.

    Bark Beetles

    Dormant bark beetles may find the warmth of your home pleasing, causing these “minute” brown and black creatures to wake and bore “into the trunk, creating small holes and very fine sawdust,” the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry also states.

    But no need to worry: These beetles won’t get a taste for the wood furniture inside your home, which is “too dry” from them, according to the bureau.

    How should I get rid of them?

    When picking out a tree, be sure to check it for egg cases or any other critters that might be lurking on the branches or near the trunk.

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    After bringing the tree home, rid it of any insects and loose pine needles by shaking it before bringing it inside. Another option is to wash the tree with a garden hose, Sidebottom said.

    "For any of the pests, you can wash the tree off with a water hose before bringing it in the home. Allow the tree the dry off overnight before bringing. Pests can be swept up, being careful not to squash them on carpets, fabrics and things as some can leave a stain," she said.

    "If a person wants to treat with an insecticide, I typically recommend insecticidal soap which is organic and can be found premixed in many hardware/home improvement stores," she added.

    Don't spray the tree with aerosol pesticides, as these products are typically flammable, Safer Brands warns.

    Madeline Farber is a Reporter for Fox News. You can follow her on Twitter @MaddieFarberUDK.

    Does your Christmas tree have walnut-shaped masses? ‘Don’t bring them inside,’ viral post warns

    Among the glistening lights and shiny ornaments, real, freshly cut Christmas trees may be home to nearly 400 praying mantis eggs that have yet to hatch.

    One Facebook user’s post warning of the brown, walnut-shaped mass went viral ahead of the holidays in 2017 — and it's making the rounds once again.

    5 EASY CHRISTMAS COOKIES TO MAKE THIS HOLIDAY SEASON

    “If you happen to see a walnut-sized/shaped egg mass, on your Christmas tree, don’t fret, clip the branch and put it in your garden. These are 100-200 praying mantis eggs!” Daniel Reed wrote at the time. “We had two egg masses on our tree this year. Don’t bring them inside they will hatch and starve!”

    While Reed estimated there could be 200 eggs, gardening company Safer Brand said there could be even more — possibly up to 400 eggs inside the sac.

    If the egg sacs are not removed, they will likely begin to hatch “after being indoors for several weeks,” the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry states online. “When this happens, numerous tiny mantids swarm over the tree seeking food.”

    These cannibalistic creatures will begin to eat one another if they can’t find another food source, according to the bureau, which urged those who purchase real Christmas trees to look for the "light tan, walnut-sized, frothy egg masses on the tree before it is taken indoors."

    'RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER,' CHARLIE BROWN AND OTHER HOLIDAY CLASSICS SPARKING CONTROVERSY

    "Cut out any small twig with an attached egg mass and place it in an evergreen shrub or tree outdoors. In spring, eggs will hatch and the mantids will have appropriate food available,” the bureau added.

    While these insects are carnivores, they don’t pose a threat to humans, according to National Geographic.

    Madeline Farber is a Reporter for Fox News. You can follow her on Twitter @MaddieFarberUDK.

    Blood-sucking dracula ant sets the new record for fastest animal

    There’s a new fastest animal on Earth and it’s … an ant.

    Sorry if we disappointed you, but believe it or not this little — and somewhat terrifying — guy has taken out the new record. And he’s found in Australia.

    Known as the Dracula ant, its jaws snaps shut 5000 times quicker than the blink of an eye.

    The speedy critter uses a snapping mechanism to quickly slide its mandibles across each other, similar to a finger snap.

    It sucks the blood of its larvae for food, hence the name, and uses its snap jaw to eat other bugs or to defend itself.

    The Dracula ant is one of at least six lineages of ants that have evolved with power-amplified jaws adapted for high-speed movements.

    Scientists recorded footage of the jaws going from zero to 320km/h in 0.000015 seconds, making it the fastest known animal movement.

    The speed can determine whether it catches food or gets eaten by a predator.

    In a study, published today, scientists said the fastest animal movements incorporate latches and springs into their appendages to overcome muscle power limits.

    “We also discovered that snap-jaw mandible shape is specialized for bending, consistent with their use as a flexible spring,” they said.

    “These results extend our understanding of animal speed and demonstrate how small changes in shape can result in dramatic differences in performance.”

    This particular species is restricted to Australia, tropical Africa and South-East Asia.

    Because of their cryptic habits, they are rare to collect.

    Researchers, led by the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, said they wanted to better understand a gap in the knowledge of animal performance, with detailed information about snap-jaw mechanisms lacking.

    This story originally appeared in news.com.au.

    Scientists create edible honey bee vaccine to protect them from deadly diseases

    The first-ever vaccine for insects now exists, thanks to scientists at the University of Helsinki in Finland hoping to save one of the most crucial pollinators in the world: the honey bee.

    The vaccine, which is edible, “protects bees from diseases while protecting global food production,” the university said in a news release. The goal, researchers said, is to protect the bees against American foulbrood, “a bacterial disease caused by the spore-forming Paenibacillus larvae ssp. Larvae.”

    The disease is the “most widespread and destructive of the bee brood diseases,” the university added.

    HONEYBEES, IN DECLINE FOR DECADES, FINDING NEW HOMES IN UNUSUAL PLACES

    Bloomberg reported the disease can kill “entire colonies” while its “spores can remain viable for more than 50 years.”

    To distribute the vaccine, scientists place a sugar patty in the hive, which the queen then eats over the course of about a week. Once ingested, the pathogens in the patty are then passed into the queen’s eggs, “where they work as inducers for future immune responses,” the university explained in the statement.

    The vaccine — which is not yet sold commercially, according to Bloomberg — is also significant because it was once not thought possible to develop a vaccine for insects, as these creatures’ immune systems do not contain antibodies.

    "Now we've discovered the mechanism to show that you can actually vaccinate them. You can transfer a signal from one generation to another," Dalial Freitak, a University of Helsinki scientist who worked to create the vaccine, said in a statement.

    Honey bees are important to the U.S. crop production, contributing an estimated $20 billion to its value, according to the American Beekeeping Foundation. The species pollinate a variety of crops, including apples, melons, blueberries and cherries — the latter two are “90 percent dependent on honey bee pollination,” according to the foundation.

    “One crop, almonds, depends entirely on the honey bee for pollination at bloom time,” the American Beekeeping Foundation added.

    The honey bee population in North America has been affected by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) disease, mites and possibly the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, according to the Harvard University Library.

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    On average, beekeepers in the U.S. lost an estimated 40 percent of their managed honey bee colonies from April 2017 to April 2018, according to Bee Informed, a nationwide collaboration of research efforts to better understand the decline of honeybees.

    "We need to help honey bees, absolutely. Even improving their life a little would have a big effect on the global scale. Of course, the honeybees have many other problems as well: pesticides, habitat loss and so on, but diseases come hand in hand with these life-quality problems,” Freitak said.

    “If we can help honey bees to be healthier and if we can save even a small part of the bee population with this invention, I think we have done our good deed and saved the world a little bit," Freitak added.

    Fox News’ Emilie Ikeda contributed to this report.

    Madeline Farber is a Reporter for Fox News. You can follow her on Twitter @MaddieFarberUDK.

    SpaceX delay may mean 36,000 wormy passengers are too old for their planned experiments

    Thousands of microscopic worms will be launched into space — wriggling around in SpaceX's next cargo shipment to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX Dragon.

    But the launch, which was planned for today (Dec. 4), has been postponed to tomorrow, and scientists are now worried that the worms will be a day "too old" for some of the planned experiments, according to the BBC.

    If all goes well in spite of the delay, these tiny but mighty creatures with muscle structures very similar to that of humans, might help us understand why and how astronauts lose muscle mass in space. [Photos: The First Space Tourists]

    In the absence of gravity, people do not have to use as much muscle to move around and support themselves — so their unused muscles begin to waste away. On a long mission, astronauts can lose as much muscle as they would if they had aged from 40 to 80 on our planet, according to The Conversation.

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  • Though this is a well-known problem, and astronauts do hours of exercise in space each day to slow down the loss, there is nothing yet that can prevent it, according to The Conversation article written by sports scientist Christopher Gaffney and physiologist Bethan Phillips.

    To test possible prevention drugs and figure out the molecular underpinnings of muscle loss in space, scientists will pack 36,000 of these worms, called C. elegans, into plastic bags and ship them up to the International Space Station.

    There these worms, each smaller than the thickness of a dime, will be left to live and reproduce for about 6.5 days, after which they will be frozen, until their planned return to Earth in a couple of months, according to Live Science's sister site Space.com.

    There are many analyses planned for these tiny critters. Scientists will look at their brain cells for signs of stress and how they affect or direct their muscles up in space, according to The Conversation article.

    Some of the worms were treated with drugs that could potentially prevent muscle loss by targeting genes that were previously shown to be expressed less in space than they are on our planet, according to The Conversation. Meanwhile, other worms had their genes altered such that they took up more or less glucose — a process that gets less efficient with aging on Earth and with spaceflight.

    At the time of launch, the worms should have just been turning into adults — and because of this one-day delay in a creature that has a life span of only a few weeks, scientists may have to rely on back-up colonies, according to the BBC.

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    Originally published on Live Science.

    Invasive tick species spreads to 9 states, raises potential health concerns, CDC says

    A species of tick native to the Asia-Pacific region that potentially poses a disease threat to humans is now located in nine different states, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced this week.

    The species — which is reportedly the first new tick species found in the U.S. in 50 years  — is known formally as the Haemaphysalis longicornis, or the Asian long-horned tick. The species was first discovered in the U.S. in the state of New Jersey in August 2017, the CDC said in a news release Thursday.

    NEW INVASIVE 'AGGRESSIVE BITER' TICK SPREADS ACROSS MULTIPLE US STATES, SPARKS CONCERN

    But the critters have since spread. New Jersey, Arkansas, Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia have now “reported finding the tick on a variety of hosts, including people, wildlife, domestic animals, and in environmental samples,” the health agency said.

    “In contrast to most tick species, a single female tick can reproduce offspring (1-2,000 eggs at a time) without mating. As a result, hundreds to thousands of ticks can be found on a single animal, person, or in the environment,” the CDC continued.

    In a statement following the discovery of the Asian long-horned tick in a North Carolina county, the state’s department of agriculture and consumer services warned residents the species is “an aggressive biter” and “frequently builds intense infestations on animals causing great stress, reduced growth and production, and blood loss.”

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    While “no harmful germs have been found in the ticks collected in the United States,” the CDC reported, the tick has reportedly transmitted the potentially life-threatening spotted fever rickettsiosis in Asia. The species may also transmit “severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome (SFTS)," which is "an emerging infectious disease caused by SFTS virus (SFTSV)," according to one study.

    Scientists are still researching and monitoring the spread of the ticks in the U.S., the health agency added.

    Fox News’ James Rogers contributed to this report.

    Madeline Farber is a Reporter for Fox News. You can follow her on Twitter @MaddieFarberUDK.

    Fire ant colonies could inspire robot swarms

    Aside from the stings and ruined picnics, fire ants are famous for their ability to swarm together and self­–assemble bridges, ladders, and even floating rafts. Researchers have now figured out the statistical rules that govern how fire ants form these structures, and the new study could help scientists build swarming, tiny shape-shifting robots.

    A team from the University of Colorado at Boulder wanted to learn how the self–made rafts, bridges, and ladders– which can take hundreds to thousands of fire ants to form– can change shape in a matter of seconds and maintain a rubber-like flexibility.

    “Fire ants are a great subject of study because they display collective intelligence and they’re also macroscopic, which makes them relatively easy to observe and study,” lead study author Franck Vernerey told Fox News. “Recent studies have measured how fire ant [clusters] flow under stress and have opened a window into understanding these communication rules. In this paper, we proposed a statistical theory that links these rules between individuals to their collective behavior and thus paves the way to understanding the origin of swarm ‘intelligence’.”

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    Vernerey and his team used another Georgia Tech University study as a starting point. That study showed that ant colonies keep flexible by constantly being on their toes (or in this case, the sticky pads on their feet). By hanging onto the ants next to them, they shift on their feet, latching onto a different neighbor every .7 seconds.

    Building from that data, the researchers used mathematical equations to break down the inner dynamics of the ants’ movements. They found that as the force on the ant increases, it moves faster. And when the force on an ant’s leg has to support more than eight times its body weight, the insect shifts its foot position to lessen the load, moving between its fellow ants at a faster rate.

    “Our hypothesis was that the rate at which individual ants break their connections with neighbors increased with the force that they feel due to deformation of the [formation],” Vernerey explained. “It correctly predicted the three phases observed experimentally: when deformed slowly, the ants have ample time to reconfigure themselves by breaking and reforming connections, thereby flowing like a typical fluid. When deformed faster, the ants sense the increased force in their legs and respond by detaching their legs faster from their neighbors resulting in much easier flow.”

    ISLAND OF FIRE ANTS SPOTTED ON HOUSTON FLOODWATERS

    The last phase, when the forces increase with so much speed that the ants can’t keep up and they no longer have time to detach from their neighbors is when the whole formation bends like solid rubber to resist from falling apart.

    Vernerey believes the new statistical theory paves the way to understanding the origin of swarm intelligence. It also could lead to a new wave of bio-inspired robots. “As engineers, one main motivation for studying these insects is that we could potentially harness these simple rules to propose bio-inspired, synthetic materials that could be just as smart,” he explained. “For instance, we found that fire ants can form clusters that flow like a fluid or stiffen up like a solid at will. Harnessing that kind of ability in our own materials would put us one step closer towards having ‘programmable matter’ with extraordinary functions.”

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    The new materials could be developed for robots that might be able to slim down and access tight spaces.

    “They could reconfigure themselves to perform complex tasks like recovering important pieces of information in reconnaissance missions, providing temporary structural supports like scaffolds or simply mimicking the shapes of other objects at the user’s will– knives or screw-drivers, for example,” Vernerey proposed. “The thing is, it’s actually quite difficult and involved to design this kind of smart, modular matter at the length scale of ants or smaller. By learning from fire ants and other social insects, we can identify a set of very basic rules that engineers can use as a roadmap for designing such materials in the future.”

    Fire ant colonies could inspire robot swarms

    Aside from the stings and ruined picnics, fire ants are famous for their ability to swarm together and self­–assemble bridges, ladders, and even floating rafts. Researchers have now figured out the statistical rules that govern how fire ants form these structures, and the new study could help scientists build swarming, tiny shape-shifting robots.

    A team from the University of Colorado at Boulder wanted to learn how the self–made rafts, bridges, and ladders– which can take hundreds to thousands of fire ants to form– can change shape in a matter of seconds and maintain a rubber-like flexibility.

    “Fire ants are a great subject of study because they display collective intelligence and they’re also macroscopic, which makes them relatively easy to observe and study,” lead study author Franck Vernerey told Fox News. “Recent studies have measured how fire ant [clusters] flow under stress and have opened a window into understanding these communication rules. In this paper, we proposed a statistical theory that links these rules between individuals to their collective behavior and thus paves the way to understanding the origin of swarm ‘intelligence’.”

    FLORENCE FLOODWATERS RESULT IN 'ISLANDS' OF FLOATING FIRE ANTS

    Vernerey and his team used another Georgia Tech University study as a starting point. That study showed that ant colonies keep flexible by constantly being on their toes (or in this case, the sticky pads on their feet). By hanging onto the ants next to them, they shift on their feet, latching onto a different neighbor every .7 seconds.

    Building from that data, the researchers used mathematical equations to break down the inner dynamics of the ants’ movements. They found that as the force on the ant increases, it moves faster. And when the force on an ant’s leg has to support more than eight times its body weight, the insect shifts its foot position to lessen the load, moving between its fellow ants at a faster rate.

    “Our hypothesis was that the rate at which individual ants break their connections with neighbors increased with the force that they feel due to deformation of the [formation],” Vernerey explained. “It correctly predicted the three phases observed experimentally: when deformed slowly, the ants have ample time to reconfigure themselves by breaking and reforming connections, thereby flowing like a typical fluid. When deformed faster, the ants sense the increased force in their legs and respond by detaching their legs faster from their neighbors resulting in much easier flow.”

    ISLAND OF FIRE ANTS SPOTTED ON HOUSTON FLOODWATERS

    The last phase, when the forces increase with so much speed that the ants can’t keep up and they no longer have time to detach from their neighbors is when the whole formation bends like solid rubber to resist from falling apart.

    Vernerey believes the new statistical theory paves the way to understanding the origin of swarm intelligence. It also could lead to a new wave of bio-inspired robots. “As engineers, one main motivation for studying these insects is that we could potentially harness these simple rules to propose bio-inspired, synthetic materials that could be just as smart,” he explained. “For instance, we found that fire ants can form clusters that flow like a fluid or stiffen up like a solid at will. Harnessing that kind of ability in our own materials would put us one step closer towards having ‘programmable matter’ with extraordinary functions.”

    NORTH CAROLINA WOMAN SAYS FIRE ANTS 'EXPLODED' ALL OVER, DELIVERING PAINFUL STINGS THAT NEARLY KILLED HER

    The new materials could be developed for robots that might be able to slim down and access tight spaces.

    “They could reconfigure themselves to perform complex tasks like recovering important pieces of information in reconnaissance missions, providing temporary structural supports like scaffolds or simply mimicking the shapes of other objects at the user’s will– knives or screw-drivers, for example,” Vernerey proposed. “The thing is, it’s actually quite difficult and involved to design this kind of smart, modular matter at the length scale of ants or smaller. By learning from fire ants and other social insects, we can identify a set of very basic rules that engineers can use as a roadmap for designing such materials in the future.”

    Massive 4,000-year-old termite mounds can be seen from space

    Nearly 4,000 years ago, approximately 200 million termite mounds were built in Brazil — ones that eventually became so enormous they can be seen from space.

    The mounds have approximately 1,800 cubic feet of soil into them. Put another way, when combined, the mounds, which are still inhabited, cover an area the size of Great Britain and the amount of soil excavated is the "equivalent to 4,000 great pyramids of Giza, and represents one of the biggest structures built by a single insect species," as Stephen Martin, of the University of Salford, explains.

    "This is apparently the world's most extensive bioengineering effort by a single insect species," Roy Funch of Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santana in Brazil said in a statement. "Perhaps most exciting of all, the mounds are extremely old — up to 4,000 years, similar to the ages of the pyramids."

    FIRE ANT COLONIES COULD INSPIRE ROBOT SWARMS

    Each mound is approximately 8 feet tall and is about 30 feet in diameter, researchers said. They were put together over thousands of years, as the single species of termites gathered dirt to build interconnected tunnels and soil to make the mounds, all while feasting on the dead leaves from the nearby caatinga forests.

    A satellite image of the termite mounds. (Credit: Roy Funch and Stephen Martin)

    The research was published in the scientific journal Cell Biology.

    "Soil samples collected from the centers of 11 mounds and dated using single-grain optically stimulated luminescence and the minimum age model indicated mound fill dates between 690 to 3820 years ago," the study reads. "Those ages are comparable to the world’s oldest known termite mounds in Africa."

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    The researchers looked to see whether the pattern of the mounds was driven by termites in surrounding areas, but tests found little aggression at the mound level. That leads them to believe that the pattern is driven by aggressive interaction, but rather "through self-organizational processes facilitated by the increased connectivity of the tunnel network and driven by episodic leaf-fall in the dry forest."

    "It's incredible that, in this day and age, you can find an 'unknown' biological wonder of this sheer size and age still existing, with the occupants still present," Martin said.

    Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia