Master of the Killer Ants

Amazing Ants Game

For most of us, ants may all look essentially the same—tiny, nondescript creatures that scurry around carrying things twice their size. But there are nearly 10,000 known species, each the unique product of over 140 million years of evolution. And their behaviors are just as diverse. Below, meet eight different types of ants with extraordinary habits and abilities.—Melissa Salpietra

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Honey pot ant
Genus: Myrmecocystus

Honey pot ants have a unique means of surviving in the deserts where they live—they store excess food in the bodies of some of their workers. Honey pot workers gather food just like any other ant, seeking out plant nectar, honeydew from aphids, and similar sweet treats. But when they return to the nest, these workers feed their spoils to a specialized class of workers called repletes. The repletes store the food in their gasters, the hindmost section of their bodies, which have thin, flexible walls that can distend to great volume. When food is scarce, the repletes simply regurgitate the stored food and feed the colony.

Hind leg
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Leafcutter ants
Genus: Atta or Acromyrmex

Although their common name suggests that leafcutter ants live off of leaves, they don't eat them. The ants scissor off pieces of fresh leaves using their sharp mandibles and carry them back to their nest, where smaller workers chew up the leaves and make a mixture that includes some of their own feces. On this bed of vegetable fertilizer, the ants cultivate a certain kind of fungus. Found only within ant colonies, this fungus feeds the leafcutters, which in turn ensure the fungus's survival. When a new leafcutter queen sets off to start her own colony, she brings along a starter-culture of the fungus.

Hind paw
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Gliding ant
Genus: Cephalotes

Living in the forest canopy, gliding ants nest within tree cavities. If one falls accidentally or jumps off its host tree to avoid a predator, it can actually steer itself through the air. In mid-fall, the wingless ant orients itself so that its abdomen and hind legs point toward the tree from which it fell. It can even make 180-degree turns in mid-air. "Controlled aerial descent," as it is known, ensures the ant won't fall too far from its nest and become lost.

Front leg and forepaw
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Bullet ant
Species: Paraponera clavata

Think honeybees and paper wasps have a painful sting? This ant has a jab that produces debilitating pain that can last up to 24 hours. P. clavata uses its powerful sting not only as a defensive mechanism if threatened but also as a weapon while foraging. The indigenous Sateré-Mawé people of Brazil use bullet ants in a painful initiation ritual, in which youths on the brink of manhood repeatedly don hand-woven gloves laced with dozens of live bullet ants.

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Trap-jaw ant
Genus: Odontomachus

This ant's bite is literally faster than a speeding bullet. The trap-jaw ant, a stealthy hunter, stalks its prey with its formidable mandibles wide open. When tiny hairs protruding from its jaw come in contact with its victim, the ant's mandibles snap shut in under a millisecond. The lightning-fast jaws also serve another purpose. If closed on a hard, flat surface, they can actually catapult the ant through the air, a technique the trap-jaw uses to cross enemy lines.

Nasal cavity
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Army ant
Genus: Eciton

Unlike most ants, which make long-term nests, army ants are migratory. They build temporary camps, or bivouacs, out of their own bodies. Using hooks at the end of their legs, worker ants link their legs together and create ant chains. These chains layered upon each other create a huge mass of ants, with the queen and larvae safely in the center. Army ants exhibit group predation and go on leaderless raids, swarming anything in their path. Not much stands a chance against these ants, unless it can move out of the way—the swarm averages a foot per minute. Even large mammals can fall prey to it if they are injured, tied up, or otherwise immobile.

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Weaver ant
Genus: Oecophylla

These arboreal ants exhibit extraordinary teamwork while building their nests; even the larvae get to pitch in. Weaver ants make their nests in treetops by "stitching" leaves together. They begin by forming a chain using their bodies that stretches from one edge of a leaf to the other. As ants exit the chain one at a time, the leaf edges come together. Workers then select larvae of a certain age and carry them to the construction site. Each worker holds a larva in its mandibles and gently squeezes, signaling the larva to expel threads of silk. The worker moves the larva back and forth over the touching edges of each leaf, and like glue, the silk binds the leaf together.

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Jack jumper ant
Species: Myrmecia pilosula

Known as the tigers of the ant world, jack jumper ants are aggressive and potentially deadly, killing on average one person every four years in Tasmania. Their sting releases venom that, in some people, can cause anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction. Australia has about 90 different species of bulldog ant, as Myrmecia ants are known commonly, and all are armed with powerful stingers. But in Tasmania it is M. pilosula that poses the most significant threat, because it is common in suburban areas, and Tasmanians love being outdoors.


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