Can ants lift huge weights?

It may not seem the most obvious contender for the clean and jerk, yet despite its tiny size an ant really can lift and carry many times its own body weight.

The exact figure quoted varies a bit, and it does depend on the species and conditions but it is not unheard of for an ant to carry fifty times its own weight. That’s roughly equivalent to you or I picking up four tons.

Ants aren’t the only ones with this prodigious strength (though clearly they have the best publicists). Beetles, snails and all kinds of invertebrates show astonishing scale-model feats of weight-lifting and leaping that would put the best Olympians to shame, if only they were scaled up to human size.

Fortunately for us, and contrary to goodness-knows-how-many B movies, giant ants and other creepy crawlies wouldn’t be very scary at all because they really wouldn’t work. Engineers tell us that the strength of an ant’s leg depends on the area of its cross section. Imagine an ant that has been snacking on some evil genius’s secret formula for growing giant tomatoes. For every doubling in length the cross sectional area of its legs goes up by four times. But its weight goes up by eight times, so that its legs end up only half as strong, relatively, as before. By the time an ant reached the size of a human it would scarcely be able to carry its own weight.

It turns out the world just works differently at different scales. The physics is the same, but materials and designs that do the job well at one scale fail miserably at others. That’s why you don’t find insects the size of Great Danes, and why, if nature had its way, you wouldn’t find dogs the size of insects, no matter how cute they look poking out of a handbag.

Nevertheless, in their own little world, ants really are the towers of strength they are reputed to be. An ant can’t quite move a rubber tree plant, but it still puts us puny humans to shame.

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