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Super Bugs?
Whimpy Humans?
      Ants rule the earth. All the myrmecologists (ant experts) say so. They tell us that if you add up the weights of all the ants in the world, they would weigh about the same as the total weight of all the humans in the world. When you consider that an individual ant is about one millionth the size of a human being - give or take a few hundred thousand? - that's a lot of ants.

      They are amazing busy little animals and really can move mountains. But not one ant at a time. It takes millions and millions of them working together - one grain at a time. Believe it or not, they are not super. Nor are they particularly strong for their size. Really! We'll prove it. They're just mediocre.

      And what about those fleas?
     What a pain they are. Helping to spread the bubonic plague (sometimes lightly referred to as the black death) all over Europe, mercilously making our little dogs and cats itch, and just generally being an obnoxious parasite. Yet apparantly there is some kind of flea consortium with a good marketing division that has convinced all the "experts" that fleas are the world's greatest jumpers.
Which they are Not!
     You've heard the claims. It's all "they" ever talk about. You can't find a nature show, or article on the internet, or in a kids' magazine on ants or fleas, that doesn't point out the supposedly mind boggling feats of ants and fleas. Ants that can lift ten, twenty, or even 50 times their weight! Fleas that can jump over a hundred times their height!

     "An ant is so strong it can lift 10 (or 20 or 50) times it's weight. This feat," they always go on to say, "is equivalent to a 200 pound man lifting 2000 pounds (or 10,000 pounds in the case of 50 times its weight) over his head!"

     The claims made about fleas are even more astonishing. Here are some flea facts that I pulled off the internet -
     "Fleas can jump over 80 times their own height, the equivalent of a 6 foot tall human jumping over a building 480 feet (more than 1 and a half football fields)high!"
And,
    "Fleas can pull 160,000 times their own weight, the equivalent of a human pulling 24 million pounds (12,000 tons)!!"

     How can this be? Can these mighty midgets be so incredibly surperior to we weakling giants? Are we really that wimpy?
     In a word, no. We are not that wimpy. And fleas and ants are not super powerful beings. In fact, they are actually kind of mediocre, even whimpy in some ways, though they are plenty adequate for their size. The above claims, often repeated even by learned scientists, are, to put it nicely, misleading. Yup, you guessed it...
There's more to it than that...

     The problem here is the word "equivalent". It isn't that the fleas can't jump 100 times their height and ants can't lift 10 or 50 times their weight. They surely can. (Though I've actually never verified it for myself - the numbers do seem reasonable. Except for the one about pulling 160,000 times their weight. I don't think I believe that one. What do you think?) It's just that these athletic feats of strength, when accomplished by such small animals, are not all that impressive. They are certainly not "equivalent", or the same as, the same feat accomplished by much larger animals. To say that they are equivalent to a human doing the same thing is to wrongly imply that the ants and fleas are performing incredible super feats. Clearly, for a human to jump 500 feet would be a superhuman feat. Though, I think, landing safely after such a jump might be even harder.

     Let's think about what the word equivalent means.
     If for an ant to lift 10 times its weight is "equivalent" to, or the same as, a human lifting 10 times its weight, then that must mean that if an ant were to grow as big as a human it would still be able to lift 10 times its weight. In other words, a 200 pound ant could lift 2000 pounds over its head. I can guarantee that that would not be the case. In fact, I am fairly sure that the poor confused giant ant would not even be able to walk or move, much less lift anything. And the same is true for the mighty flea. A flea the size of a human, in addition to being really gross and ugly, would probably not be able to budge itself, much less jump. I think it might rip its legs off if it tried to jump.

     Here's the simple truth. It is easy for a very small animal to lift many times it's weight. If it can't, and many of those little bugs actually can't, it is a real wimp. If we were as small as an ant, we could easily do it, and I think I can prove it. It's also a lot easier for small animals to jump many times their height than it is for big animals. Fleas aren't super powerful, they're just small. It's just fairly simple physics, geometry, and the way muscles work.

     In the next section, Super Bugs - Part 2, the Wild-Eyed Blue-Legged Cube Creature will help us explore, in easy to understand detail, why it is really pretty easy for an ant, or any very small animal, to lift many times its weight and why it is very difficult for large animals like humans to do the same.


     Go on to "Super Bugs - Part 2", in which we show why the small guys in PE class could always do the most pull-ups and push-ups and explain why ants are just mediocre when it comes to strength.
The Myth

strong weight lifting ant on white bg

     If a human had strength "equivalent" to that of an ant, he could lift 2000 (maybe even 10,000) pounds over his head. Or, to put it another way, if an ant were as big as a human it could lift 2000 or more pounds over its head.


The Truth
(Is It Really "Out There"?)

happy dancing man and wimpy worried giant ant
     If an ant were as big as a human it probably would not even be able to walk or lift its own weight, much less lift even a hundred pounds over its head.
Find out why in Part 2


The Truth About Fleas
happy jumping flea
     Fleas really can jump over 100 times their height. But this is a pretty mediocre feat and is not even close to being the equivalent of a human jumping 100 times its height. If a flea were to grow as large as a human, it would not be able to jump 100 times its height. My fat cousin Wilbur could "out-jump" it on one foot. In fact the poor parasite would probably not be able to even move its pathetic wimpy jointed-legged body. Which would be good news for all the giant dogs.

     However, in fairness to the overly hyped flea, it does employ a clever energy storage mechanism, similar to a catapult or crossbow, that allows it to accelerate much faster, and therefore jump much higher, than it would otherwise be able to. But this also employs simple physics and is not a super feat. (See the Animal Technology section for a fascinating discussion of fleas and catapults).
    If we were to shrink down to the size of a flea we would not be able to jump as high as the flea because we don't have this clever mechanism. On the other hand if a giant human-sized flea were to try to employ its "catapult" mechanism, it would probably injure itself very badly. If it did manage to launch itself into the air, even one or two body lengths, it would land, we believe, with an exoskeleton crunching splat — and never suck blood again.

     Visit the Super Bugs - Part 3 section on jumping (coming soon) to see how size affects jumping and why you can't fairly or meaningfully compare the jumping feats of little guys to big guys.



The Further Truth About Ants
strong man lifting unhappy ant over his head
     Ants are amazing fascinating creatures. They could honestly be considered the dominant species on earth. There are 9,500 known species of ants. This makes up only about 1.3% of the 750,000 known insect species. Yet this 1.3% makes up about half the total body mass, or weight, of all insects on earth!

     Ants are the undertakers of their world. They carry back to their nests over 90% of the dead bodies of animals in their size range. Underground in their nests they are busy moving more soil than earthworms. Thus they are moving and circulating huge quantities of nutrients that are vital to the health of the entire ecosystem. We humans need the ants a lot more they need us. In fact, the ants might say they don't need us at all. But what do they know?

     Their success is impressive. In many ways they do seem super. But it is not super strength. Their real source of strength is in organization, unity of purpose, persistance, and sheer huge numbers.
     Individual ants are not super strong. They are about what you would expect for a small animal with a jointed exoskeleton. If you could zap one with the "Honey I Blew Up the Kid" ray gun so that it was as big as a human or galapagos tortoise, it would be in big trouble. Though humans are not a particularly strong animal, as large mammals go, they would be a lot stronger than the poor ant who would probably be unable to even lift its own weight.

Now it gets really interesting.
Go on to Super Bugs - Part 2

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