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What do Jell-O, toothpaste, and floating fire-ant rafts have in common? All are so-called “viscoelastic” materials, meaning that they can both resist flow under stress, like honey, and they can bounce back to their original shape when stretched or compressed, like rubber bands. As such, the materials neither behave exactly as solids or exactly as fluids, but as something in between.
And fire-ant rafts’ unusual properties don’t stop there, according to a new study presented in a talk at the upcoming American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics (DFD) meeting in Pittsburgh, Pa. Researchers found the rafts actively reorganize their structure, a feat that allows them to more effectively cushion themselves against applied forces, such as the battering of raindrops or the surges of waves.
An ant raft stays on top of the water surface even when it is hardly pressed by a branch — showing water repellency and buoyancy. (Credit: Nathon Mlot)