Amazon ants are the most abundant insect in the Amazon Rainforest. They will probably be the first animal you see when you enter the rainforest. You will see ants running up the trees collecting food from their flocks of honey dew secreting insects, army ants scurrying along the floor conducting raids on other other colonies, or leaf cutters tirelessly carrying leaf fragments back to their large underground nests that put our most intricate buildings to shame.
Although less common than other ants, Gigantiops desructor is one of the most interesting. The massive eyes you can see give these ants an alien-like appearance and powerful vision so Gigantiops can rely on vision alone to navigate its complicated rainforest habitat. Usually ants lay pheromones, but on the rainforest floor with its high turnover of dead leaves and plant matter, it’s best to have another navigation strategy. Research is now showing that many ants use visual navigation as well as other methods like laying pheromone trails. Some visual ants simply follow pheromones when they’re not familiar with a route and when familiar switch to quicker vision-based navigation. Despite their intimidating title, these ants are harmless and would rather run or ‘hop’ away.
Contrasting the above harmless ants, unfortunately bullet ants are not named because they’re gun-metal grey or because they’re shaped like a bullet, but rather because the pain from their sting is apparently like getting shot. They are also known as the 24 hour ant as the pain supposedly takes 24 hours to go away. Putting these two things together means these are the animals jungle guides most fear in the Amazon. The fear is so well ingrained that locals generally call any large ant a bullet ant and stay well away. Nature’s lesson is that if you’re a harmless creature, it can be very rewarding to look like an ant, particularly a dangerous ant, and many creatures from caterpillars to spiders have followed this lesson. Bullet ants often sting as people brush by vegetation the ants are standing on. If you have your wits about you, you will spot these large ants standing on leaves as you walk through the rainforest. Although painful, there are generally no long term effects and Amazon Indians use these ants in initiation rituals to mark the occasion when boys become men.
These ants have fierce jaws that snap shut on fingers foolish enough to pick them up (speaking from personal experience). Their flattened body gives the impression these ants can glide from the canopy like their canopy gliding counterparts, Cephalotes atratus, and personal experience supports the idea. These Daceton ants have a very fast jaw-snapping behavior they use to catch large insect prey. This method of attack, the trap-jaw behavior, has evolved independently in a few other ants like the Odontomachus, Anochetus, Strumigenys and Myrmoteras species.
Leafcutter ants (pictured in the header image) usually grace the photos of rainforest tourists when they’ve returned from their South American adventures. Ingeniously, the leaf fragments are generally matched to the size of the ant carrying the piece, as they spread their legs and cut in an arc reflecting their leg width. This means that large ants carry larger pieces than smaller ants. They carry these back to their sisters in the nest who cut the fragments smaller and smaller until it resembles a type of leafy mush, which is fed to a fungus the ants farm. In return, the fungus gives the ants food called gongylidia, a swelling of a fungal thread that contains carbohydrates and fats. This apparently means ants started farming long before humans. The tireless work ethic of ants is what caused the biblical proverb ‘Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise.” Whether the author of this famous saying had heard of parasitic ants that complete their entire lives on the backs of others, slave making ants that force other species to do their work, or intimidating weapon-wielding warriors entirely dependent on their smaller sisters for nourishment is another story…
‘Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise.” Proverbs 6:6-11
As mentioned in the Amazon carnivores article, these army ants have major workers with impressive sickle shaped jaws. Amazon Indians even use these as sutures to close up wounds. The pictured species is most likely Eciton burchellii, one of the many species of Amazon army ants. They have a generalist predatory behavior consuming any animal unlucky enough to be in their path, as the vast army ant swarm makes its way across the rainforest floor. It’s no wonder Homer named the fearless warriors led by Achilles the Myrmidons (from the Greek ‘myrmex’ for ant). This species is the most studied of the army ants. Their nest is not static but a living ball made of the ants themselves. This means when its time to move on to greener pastures, they simply disconnect and move off carrying their larvae (photo above). When the ants find an area, they set up camp in the living-ball fashion and over the next few weeks disperse like clockwork around the nest consuming prey in each direction. Although ferocious-looking, the ants use enzymes injected into prey to break down their food rather than ripping it apart like their African driver ant cousins.
This is a large, furry ant… OK, no — It’s a tamandua. Tamanduas live in rainforest trees and are the ant eaters of the trees. This photos was taken in the Tamshiyacu Tahuayo Reserve in Iquitos, Peru. These animals roam the trees and forest floor in search of ants and termites. Their size may seem to be intimidating for an ant, but due to their vast numbers, large predators don’t have much impact on an ant’s world as a whole. Auguste Forel, an ant enthusiast in the 1800s, mentioned:
“The greatest enemies of ants are other ants, just as the greatest enemies of men are other men.” – Auguste Forel