An entire world follows the march of the army ants

By Ed Yong | November 30, 2010 9:00 am
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Army ants have a reputation as destroyers. As they march through the jungle in battalions several thousand-strong, they supposedly kill all in their path. But this infamy is overblown. There’s no doubting their success as predators, but army ants also bring life wherever they march. They have an entourage of over 550 species that hang around their legions, of which 300 or so depend on the ants for their survival.

Carl and Marian Rettenmeyer spent much of their lives studying army ants. Carl passed away in 2009, but this year, Marian has completed the couple’s masterpiece – a comprehensive catalogue of the animals associated with a single species of army ant Eciton burchellii. Their record is incredible – a menagerie of animals running alongside the columns, tracking them by air, living within the nests and garbage dumps, and even riding on the ants themselves.

Think about army ants and you probably picture a large swarm of individuals crawling over the ground. In truth, only two of the 150 or so species in the Americas actually do this. E.burchellii is one of them. It forms armies of half a million ants that march from temporary nests or ‘bivouacs’. For three weeks, their legions issue forth from, and return to, the same bivouac, while they wait for their eggs to develop. When the larvae hatch, the whole army moves to a new encampment on a nightly basis. Two weeks later, the larvae pupate and the colony stalls again.

On the screen – from Indiana Jones to MacGyver – a marching column of army ants is a threat to all life. Even the naturalist William Mann wrote in National Geographic that “Even men flee as the mighty column writhes through the jungle, wiping out all insect and animal life in its path.” But these are bold exaggerations. E.burchelli mainly attacks the denizens of the undergrowth – insects, spiders and other arthropods. While it can kill small back-boned animals, its jaws can’t cut skin or flay flesh. Humans aren’t in any danger, nor are a whole host of creatures that accompany the army on its manoeuvres.

As the army marches, it flushes out thousands of animals from the leaf litter, and this attracts birds. Over 200 species track the ants and pick off the morsels that flee from the army. They almost never touch the ants themselves, except by accident, when a worker happens to be clinging onto another tasty insect.

Several of these birds – the antbirds, in particular – get around half of their food by following the swarm. They fly to different bivouacs to check for colonies that are about to march, and they compete with one another for the best thieving spots, just in front of the ants. The birds themselves attract hangers-on – around 239 species of skipper butterflies follow them to feed off their droppings.

Birds aren’t the only airborne followers with an interest in the animals flushed out by the ants. Parasitic wasps and flies are on the lookout too, ready to dart in and lay their eggs in a scurrying cockroach or grasshopper. When the eggs hatch, the unfortunate victims will be devoured from the inside out. These parasites have many different strategies. Caledoxia flies lays live larvae directly onto their victims. Stylogaster flies shoot harpoon-like eggs at fleeing cockroaches. And flesh flies lay their eggs in the open wounds of animals that have been injured but not dismembered by the ants.

Some associates risk death by joining the march, living inside the bivouacs, or even riding on the ants themselves. Unsurprisingly, they need special adaptations to avoid being eaten. Springtails are probably too fast and agile to be caught. Resident beetles mimic the ants’ appearance, or have streamlined bodies to deflect snapping jaws. Some use the ants as mobile restaurants, jumping onto workers that are carrying food, and eating their booty right under (or over) their very jaws. Tetradonia even kills the ants themselves, dragging workers away from the main column to dismember elsewhere.

Many mites have specialised at hitching aboard the ants, and some are found nowhere else. They too have many adaptations to avoid being found or dislodged. Larvamima, as the name suggests, looks like an ant larva. Planodicus has hairs that match those on the ant’s legs. Circocylliba has a dome-like shell that forms a tight seal with the ant’s body. Rettenmeyerius carli – named after the late naturalist himself – sucks the ant’s blood from probably the safest location of all: the very bottom of its jaws. And Pinoglyphus has only ever been found attached to the eye of an army ant worker.

All in all, the Rettenmeyers counted 557 species that associate with the ants and that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg. In their 55 years of research, the duo have collected thousands of specimens of species found near or within the marching armies. Many of which haven’t been described yet and they represent the followers of just one species of army ant.

For more on army ant associates, you can buy two DVDs – “Associates of Eciton burchellii” and ‘‘Astonishing Army” from the Rettenmeyers’ website, containing video shot by the duo themselves. They cost $25 a copy, which goes towards the Carl and Marian Rettenmeyer Ant-Guest Endowment.

Thanks to Alex Wild at Myrmecos for drawing my attention to the story.

Reference: Insecte Sociaux http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00040-010-0128-8

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Comments (5)

  1. Dale Hoyt

    While a human is in no danger of being devoured by a swarm of Army Ants they are not entirely harmless. In Costa Rica a raiding swarm took up residence in the hotel I was staying in. The bivouac was established in my bathroom, on the ceiling above the tub. The workers and soldiers were all over the room and the veranda. It was impossible to stay there because of the stings and bites whenever they came in contact with bare flesh. The next morning I watched the bivouac move on, leaving the bathtub filled to a depth of one inch with the remains of the prey, mostly insect wings and legs, that had been gathered by the swarm and brought back to feed the developing larvae. I spent the night on the floor of the dining area in the adjacent building.

  2. An intriguing aspect of the ant behaviour you describe is that the size of the colony, itself dependent on reproductive success, changes the patterns of behaviour.

    Years ago I read Deborah Gordon’s book about her longitudinal studies of harvester ants in Arizona: “Ants at Work: How an Insect Society is Organized”. She also observed that colony behaviour changes with a change in colony size. In what she calls the ‘Epilogue’ to the book, she wrote:

    “Ants do not tell each other what to do by transferring messages. The signal is not in the contact, or in the chemical information exchanged in the contact. The signal is in the pattern of contact . . . The other intriguing feature of interaction patterns is that such patterns depend on the size of the system.”

  3. Craig

    We can glorify these “Army Ants” all day long but remember their mind is still controlled by the hive. Perhaps if they ever knew true peace they would not march. x

  4. Brian Too

    Those mandibles on the warrior! Formidable.

  5. I’m so happy MacGyver gets a shout out here :) Is that wrong?

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