The deadly ants

Armoured tough, with machete jaws, African army ants are masterful fighters, says Richard Hackensacker

The army ants can reduce a tethered cow to polished bones in several weeks
The army ants can reduce a tethered cow to polished bones in several weeks

Many naturalists and animal hunters in Africa have experienced the strange phenomenon when herds of elephants flee away from ants, known as army or legionnaire ants. Forget lions, tigers, and bears. When it comes to the art of attacking, itís that will make you break into a cold sweat. Armoured tough, with machete jaws, these masterful fighters hack and dice prey vastly larger than themselves by acting in numbers beyond easy comprehension.

It all starts with a silent murmur in the area as millions of army ants march in migration in the forests and their billions of feet drumming a slow deadly music for all animals, including humans, to get away from their path. A three-lane highway of army ants can stretch for as far as 150 yards.

During its 10-hour workday, an army ant colony flows across the forest floor catching thousands of insects and large wounded animals, which cannot run away to escape. Among humans, the individuals who are at highest risk are very elderly people and very young children. Only saving factor is, that the broad front of these army of ants seldom exceeds 20 metres or 65 feet and if you are out of this width, you can be safe and it often takes four hours, before these long processions passes any point in its path. In modern days, some African tribes have found out that, if you soak the leading columns with kerosene/petrol and set fire to them, it diverts the main array.

More than 20 films, based on the murderous march of these ants have been made, with the first film Empire of the Ants, a 1905 short story by H.G. Wells, which was repeated into a film of the same title in 1977. The story involves an explorer who is dispatched to South America to investigate reports of giant ants destroying a colony.

It is common for these army ants to reduce a tethered cow to polished bone in several weeks. A few cases of human deaths (inebriated or infant) have been reported. The Siafu army ants on Mount Meru in Tanzania were implicated in the death of a missing tourist few years ago. Many missionary settlements in the Africa escaped destruction solely due to the fact, that the width attacking band of ants was less than 20 metres and the would be victims could run/stay away.

These incredibly dangerous insects can grow from 8mm to 12mm of length. Most of them are light brown, but some can be reddish. They use formic acid to inject into the bodies of their victims, wrecking the basic circulatory system of all attacked animals.

It is also considered that army ants are some of the most efficient animals, or insects, especially in the tropics. They form a giant group made up of millions of soldier ants. They, then, march killing and devouring anything in their path. If they come to a large animal, like an entangled cow, the soldiers will gradually start to cover it and when it is totally covered, they will cut the animal into small pieces without touching the internal organs, so it gets eaten alive. After the animal has been cut up into tiny pieces, the worker ants follow a chemical trail to the food and carry it back to the nest. These ants can carry up to 20 times their body weight, (the equivalent of a woman strapping a hippo to her back) and rest while consuming their great feast.

One of the best known army ants is the Burchellís army ant (named after its discoverer Burchell), found in Central and South America. These species, consume so much of the available prey in a given area that they need to be constantly on the move to find more food. Recently, Queensland found that it has been invaded by a type of army ant, probably brought by cargo ships and the Queensland Department of Primary Industry says that itíll cost more than $100 million, over the next five years, to exterminate these ants.

Those animals that could stand a chance against the ants are few. If you ever visit the tropics, watch out or youíll be carried off as their food.

ó MF (By arrangement with Albion Features of UK)