Steve Yanoviak, Robert Dudley and Mike Kaspari of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC discovered the gliding finesse of the ant when they were conducting field work in Panama.
In a study published in the journal Nature, the scientists filmed the falling ants as they swivelled their hind legs in the direction of the tree trunk before beginning a steep, directed dive. In tests when the scientists marked a number of ants with paint before dropping them from the canopy, the scientists found about 85 per cent of them made it back to the same tree - sometimes within 10 minutes of falling.
The biologists believe the ants' behaviour is an evolutionary adaptation to living high up in the canopy where they feed and breed. When they glide, the ants appear to look for the tree they fell out of, said Dr Yanoviak. "We still don't understand what mechanisms the ants use to change direction and to maintain a steady glide path," he said.
"For an ant, a 30-metre fall to the forest floor is akin to me falling three-and-a-half miles. An ant falling to the forest floor enters a dark world of mould and decomposition, of predators and scavengers, where the return trip is through a convoluted jungle of dead, accumulated leaves.
"Gliding is definitely the way to go, and we won't be surprised if we find more examples of this behaviour among wingless canopy insects," Dr Kaspari said.