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News Release 05-020

Hang Gliding, Ant Style

Tree-dwelling ants falling from the rainforest canopy chart specific courses to safety

Ant on thumb
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Certain species of tree-dwelling ants glide to safety when falling.

February 9, 2005

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Keen observation by Stephen Yanoviak, a researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch, revealed that certain species of rainforest ants use “directed descent” when recovering from a treetop fall.  The ants purposefully glide towards the trunk of their home tree – even making 180-degree mid-air turns to avoid ending up on the forest floor. 

As he was climbing around 100 feet up in the trees, Yanoviak noticedthat whenever he brushed off attacking ants, the vast majority landed on the same tree’s trunk and quickly made their way back from where they had fallen.

This wasn’t the focus of Yanoviak’s research, but the ever-curious scientist became intrigued.  By marking the ants with a spot of white nail polish and capturing impressive video images, Yanoviak proved his initial supposition.  In fact, about 85 percent of the falling ants glided to their originating tree trunk.

Yanoviak teamed up with Robert Dudley of the University of California, Berkeley, an expert on gliding animals, and Michael Kaspari, an ant ecologist from the University of Oklahoma, to report the findings in the Feb. 10 issue of the journal Nature.

Alan Tessier, whose environmental biology program at the National Science Foundation, supported part of the research said, “This novel finding illustrates an adaptation to life in the forest canopy, and is likely to stimulate widespread research on gliding in insects and other arthropods.  The discovery of this directed-gliding ability adds new perspective to life in a 3-dimensional world.

Perhaps E.O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology and world-renowned expert on ants, captured it best: “When you have seen one ant, one bird, one tree, you have not seen them all.”

For the full story, including video of the ants, see:



Media Contacts
Randy Vines, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:

Program Contacts
Alan J. Tessier, NSF, (703) 292-8481, email:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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