JANUARY
1989

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

01-04-89

Warrior Ants on the March

 

It is the stuff horror movies are made of.  Hordes of seemingly mindless individuals terrorizing every living thing in their path.  Unafraid of humans or any technology that the human mind can conceive, these creatures use fearsome jaws to wreak havoc on all they encounter.

“They” are warrior ants, sometimes called army or driver ants.  No wild-eyed scriptwriter has to dream up such a movie tale.  It already exists!

Warrior ants live in the semitropical regions of South America and Africa, but unlike most other ants, they do not have a permanent home.  Warrior ants form bivouacs from which they raid surrounding areas in search of plunder.  Or they go on marches during which it is said they consume all of the animal refuse in their way.  During such frenzied marches, they will not hesitate to attack all kinds of vertebrates, including human beings.

Many are the tales of encounters with the warrior ants.  Dr. Albert Schweitzer had to conquer the warrior ants, among other things, as he developed his hospital in Africa.  Of particular interest to Schweitzer was the chicken house.  At the onset of a warrior ant invasion, Schweitzer would jump out of bed and run to open the chicken house door.  According to the famous doctor, “Shut in, they would inevitably be the prey of the ants, which creep into their mouths and nostrils until they are suffocated, and then devour them, so that in a short time nothing is left but their white bones.”

Another well-known doctor who devoted his life to Africa also records encounters of the unpleasant kind with warrior ants.  This doctor was none other than the one who prompted the journalists Sir Henry Stanley to exclaim upon finding him living on Lake Tanganyika, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”

Dr. David Livingstone recorded in his diary that the camp “suffered a furious attack at midnight from driver ants.”  In an attempt to keep the ants away, Livingstone's men lighted grass fires.  In his last diary entry for the day, he wrote:  “We put hot ashes on the defiant hordes.”  Apparently to no avail because the good doctor noted that he had suffered bites so numerous that he resembled a person who had smallpox.

In some parts of Africa, criminals were punished a century or more ago by binding their hands and feet and laying them in the path of an ant army.  Francois Coillard, a missionary in Africa, reported that under such circumstances, “in a surprisingly short time the writhing victim will have been changed into a skeleton of clean and polished bones that will make the trained anatomist envious.”

Over time, such observations of warrior ants have no doubt helped give credence to mothers' admonitions to fidgety children:  “You're wiggling around like you have ants in your pants!”

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox