WAS IT DESIGNED?

The Carpenter Ant’s Antenna Cleaner

The Carpenter Ant’s Antenna Cleaner

Cleanliness is vital for an insect if it is to fly, climb, and sense its surroundings. For example, dirty antennae reduce an ant’s ability to navigate, communicate, and pick up scents. So “you will never find a dirty insect,” says zoologist Alexander Hackmann. “They’ve figured out how to cope with surface contamination.”

Consider: Hackmann and his colleagues studied the mechanism that a species of carpenter ant (Camponotus rufifemur) uses to clean its antennae. They found that the ant removes particles of different sizes from its antennae by bending its leg to form a kind of clamp and then pulling each antenna through the clamp. Coarse bristles in the clamp knock off the largest pieces of dirt. Smaller contaminants are removed by a fine comb that has gaps exactly the same width as the hairs on the ant’s antennae. Then the smallest particles​—as tiny as 1/80th the diameter of a human hair​—are removed by the bristles of an even finer brush.

Watch a carpenter ant clean its antennae

Hackmann and his team believe that the mechanism used by ants to keep their antennae clean could find application in industry. For example, similar methods would be useful in maintaining cleanliness during the manufacture of delicate microelectronic components and semiconductors, where even minor contamination can result in defects.

What do you think: Did the carpenter ant’s efficient antenna cleaner evolve? Or was it designed?