Fire ants hold on to each other with adhesive pads on the bottoms of their feet. (photo by FRANK60)

Creepy to some and painful to all, fire ants hold some surprisingly helpful secrets for medical advancement. These insects can latch together to form complex structures with their bodies, like rafts and bridges, despite having no centralized system to direct these movements.

In a study led by biomedical engineer Franck Vernerey at the University of Colorado Boulder, researchers observed how the behaviors of individual ants changed to accommodate changing structural pressure and, thus, changed the shape and behavior of the whole colony.

“One main motivation for studying these insects is that we could potentially harness these simple rules to propose bio-inspired synthetic materials,” Vernerey says.

Those synthetic materials could be manufactured with the same swarm intelligence so they can be used in tissue regeneration and drug delivery systems that target specific cells in need of medicine.