Attack of the Army Ants

Friday 2 February: 19.30–20.00

Continuing the fascinating wildlife series, Jake Willers ventures into the Amazon rainforest to witness one of the animal world’s most intriguing spectacles – the hunting method of the army ant.

With its abundance of lush foliage, tropical fruits and insect life, the Amazon is home to more species of animal than any other place on earth, and army ants exploit this environment to the full. It doesn’t take long for Jake to find a few of the ants, but can he track them back to one of their temporary nests – known as bivouacs – to find out more about how they operate? “Army ants have well-planned routes so following these ‘antways’ should take me to the core of their operations,” he explains.

Army ants are nomadic, moving around constantly as they run out of food, and capturing their prey by organising huge raiding formations each comprising up to 750,000 ants. These swarms fan out, attacking anything that gets in their way, regardless of its size or place in the jungle food chain. If a predator like a lizard or an anteater comes along, the army ants simply latch on and sting profusely with the sting on their abdomen. “This one’s just stung me and it hurts, so imagine 20 or 30 of them jumping on top of a lizard and stinging,” marvels Jake after a close encounter with the creatures.

As an unfortunate cricket crosses the ants’ path, Jake notes their well-practised technique. “They hold it down by the wings and the legs, spreading it out so it can’t struggle free. Then they’ll start stinging its soft tissues, like the abdomen at the back here,” he explains. “It will take a little while to subdue the prey, but once they have, they’ll start using their mandibles, biting away at where the appendages join the body.” Once their work is done they will start carrying the pieces of the dead cricket back to the bivouac. Jake hopes to follow them there to find the mastermind behind the ant operations – the queen. “The sheer undertaking as they clear the forest of its inhabitants is overwhelming,” he says, awestruck by their trails of carnage. “This has to be one of the most terrifying wild spectacles on earth.”

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