For My Dear Aunt Anty
Supposedly ants account for more biomass than any other animal species in the jungle. One could spend hours walking through the jungle without seeing a single large mammal or reptile, but you could hardly avoid stepping on enormous ant colonies along the way. Mini and I know from hours and hours of sitting in the jungle that ants are literally everywhere, and if you happen to have something they want then God help you.
Before coming to CICRA, I never knew that ants communicate through scent, which explains why they are equally adept during the day and night. Usually we spot them by their long orderly lines that cross our trails, though occasionally they spread out into a thick ant blanket that can only be crossed with a hop, skip and jump. If you follow these lines or masses to their origin you’ll discover them living in every kind of space fathomable (underground, in large mounds, nests, tree hollows, etc.). Only place I’ve yet to see ants thrive is underwater, but it wouldn’t surprise me either.
So far during my short stint in the jungle, I’ve encountered one eminently lovable type of ant, one likable (if a not a nuisance) type, and a handful of abhorrent types.
The eminently lovables are none other than the leafcutter ants, genus Atta. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing so many of their enormous colonies on our daily routes that I’ve awarded prestigious names to a few that truly impress. Among these are Bangalore, Bombay, New Delhi, and the late Chennai. Not sure what led to Chennai’s sudden demise but the city was simply disserted after several rainy days. These ant cities stand out for sheer population, urban sprawl size, and complex roadwork. If you didn’t know that ants made roads, then let me be the first to inform you. Leafcutter ants don’t simply make use of the forest’s tree fall paths and liana skyways, but literally move leaves and debris aside to construct highways along the ground. The roads are paved with very finely cut leaf litter and include on-ramps, road forks, and even intersections that I liken to traffic circles. I’ve never actually seen roadwork in process but I have seen a squad of soldier ants moving a fallen stick out of the way for their workers. Once removed, the soldiers dispersed into various posts where they aided fallen workers and, presumably, defend the road.
Next to the leafcutters, I have a soft spot in my heart for the likable glider ants, family Formicidae. These dudes win the Good-Looks Award by far with their flat-shaped heads like a Lamborghini. Glider ants are unique for their ability to fall with poise, in other words glide. If you were to knock a glider ant off its home tree, it can employ the gliding effect to steer right back to a lower point on the tree. This skill makes them exceedingly annoying to our project because they swarm our traps and if you flick them off they, naturally, glide back. Nevertheless, gliding and good-looks would not reserve this species a soft spot in my heart were it not for their amazingly chill temperament. Unlike any other type of large ant that I know, the gliders almost never bite. So if you ever happen to look down and see a big glider ant crawling up your leg, RELAX, it won’t hurt you.
The next three abhorrent ant species, at least from this researchers point of view, give all ants a bad rap. Some bite, some sting, some do both, and all seem evolved for the sole purpose of inflicting hell on the human body. No matter what part of the jungle you find yourself in, you’ll probably encounter one maybe even two of these buggers.
I’ll start with the ant that is probably most well known and causes enough pain to be likened to a lethal bullet. The bullet ant, Paraponera clavata, I’m referring to is about 1-inch long with golden feet and pincers that can draw blood. They live in fairly small mounds at the base of trees and appear to explore independently throughout the day. They’re usually spotted (or not!) hanging on the end of a leaf tip or crawling up a vine that we large mammals walk past a thousand times a day. They don’t exactly try to latch onto people, but if it happens and you don’t notice then you may be in for a sensational surprise. You might fear the bite at first but what you’ll remember from these nasty insects is their sting. These fearsome looking ants pack a venomous sting that feels like 10 consecutive tetanus shots in the same spot. It starts as a dull throb in the site of impact and left alone will soon become a pulsating pain all over that culminates in purple haze. Best advice…don’t live your life in fear, just carry a venom extractor and SUCK IT UP!
The next abhorrent ant type is always a much lesser dot on our radar but probably the best wake up call on this side of the equator. Fire ants, genus Solanopsis, are the type of insect that you slip down the backside of someone who has a nasty attitude. So small, you’ll strain to see the fire ant even when you’re sober, and there bite is hardly noticeable at all. Their sting on the other hand, is so incongruent with their size that you’ll never judge another ant by its appearance again. If just one of these miniscule insects should fall onto your neck and choose to sting, which they always do, prepare yourself for a small red rash and fiery sensation that burns to the touch. The main problem is that you’ll never discover just one of these ants on your neck, but more like 10 to 20, and all over your body. If you are lucky enough to be at a safe distance when your field buddy gets jumped by a team of fire ants you’ll never forget the experience. It is something like watching a strip show to the song and dance of Hokey-Pokey, at light speed.
By now, you’re probably wondering what ant could possibly follow the likes of bullet and fire ants, but then you haven’t yet met the army ants, genus Eciton. The army ant is the ant that all other ants abhor. About medium-sized in stature and with a red bum, the army ants have evolved a real head heavy persona. They have no sting like Isula or Solanopsis and they don’t ambush you either, they simply overwhelm everything with their indomitable chitin mandibles and kamikaze war tactics. Army ants are probably the most feared carnivores in the jungle. Plant your rubber boot down on a line of them and you won’t even notice they are their, but put a bit of flesh or smelly cloth in the same place and game over. When an army ant decides to bite, it clamps down its pincers so hard that you can rip off its body without affecting its grip. It would seem that the head of an army ant is impartial to its own body parts and will go on shredding your skin whether dismembered or not. Point being, if you see a long line of red-butted ants coming your way then do like all the other fauna in the jungle and steer clear. The other day, Mini and I returned to our cabin in the early afternoon, only to find our floor swarming with army ants. We pulled a quick u-turn and only came back after dark when the ants had moved on. Upon inspecting our belongings we discovered several other ant species that used to roam our floors freely, hiding in our packs, up on our walls, under the soap bar, between pages in books, and many where clutching onto little white larvae. We asked the CICRA director if he’s ever had a similar experience in his cabin, to which he replied yes and added that he has a colony of wasps that always leaves and returns once the army ants are done.
The list of ants in the rainforest goes on and on and people do devote entire lives to learning about each and every one. I’m sure that all these abhorrent types are actually quite loveable in another light, while the gliders and leaf cutters terrorize many of their neighbors. Nevertheless, if you plan on spending any significant amount of time in the rain forest, then these anecdotes will at least give you an idea of what to expect. I, for one, am eternally grateful to those that first told me which ants are my friends and which to leave alone.