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AROUND HOME : ANIMALS : The Freeway Underfoot

March 27, 1988|WILLIAM JORDAN

THE FREEWAY RUNS past the garden in the back yard. Like all freeways, it assumes a different perspective from the air. Miles become feet. Vehicles crawl along like ants.

The fact is, this particular freeway is crawling with ants, and at peak activity it puts Interstate 405 to shame. From human height, the ants look like little vehicles moving as fast as cars appear to be moving from 20,000 feet.

This suggests an experiment. Measure an ant--about one-eighth of an inch long. Mark off one foot along its freeway. Get a stopwatch. Flood the garden to get the traffic hysterical and moving at top speed. Pick out an ant. Time it to get a rate. Then work out a simple algebraic proportion to scale the ant up to the size of an automobile. The answer: 3 seconds per foot, which works out to 175 miles per hour. These little creatures, for their size, are performing at Indianapolis standards.

Now, what race car could stop dead, without disintegrating or going completely out of control, exchange information with another car coming from the opposite direction, then start up again at 175 m.p.h. instantly? Garden ants do it as a matter of course.

It is one of those abilities that come with minute size, but the feat is rarely appreciated. Even those little scouts you see running around the kitchen counter are going at about 65 m.p.h. Apparently this is an optimum rate. It allows the creature to explore a maximum amount of territory at the most efficient rate of energy use. And when it finds a piece of meat, a drop of syrup or a bread crumb, it alerts its comrades, who quickly develop into a freeway with the purpose of hustling the energy source back to the nest. Gasoline or food, it is still energy. Freeways cannot operate without it.

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