Good Reading : July 2010
52 goodreading ı JULY 2010 An old man with a limp appeared. The two men conducted a rapid- fire conversation in the local Kanaka language, then the old man guided me down the road to a tiny room next to a mosque. Except for a thin sleeping mat, it was bare: no toilet, water, electricity. That night, I lay for hours watching geckos in the moonlight. Awakened at dawn by the call to prayer, I hobbled to my feet, rubbing my fingers across the areas where the mat's reed latticework had impressed a design like a city map into my flesh. Finding ants in the dry forests around Sullia proved as arduous as it had been in Bangalore. That first mor ning, the ants in front of the forestry office had vanished, as had Mr Beeramoidin, whom I never saw again. I decided to comb the forests, but they were desiccated. It wasn't until the fourth day of looking that a diversionary hike at the edge of town through a watered plantation of stately oil palms brought me luck -- a batch of Pheidologeton diversus crossing my path. I fell to my knees, thrilled to finally find some of Captain Bingham's fabled swar ming ants, and began inspecting the diversus column. First, a marvelous sight: a major worker was careening along carrying a dozen minors, much like the elephant whose mahout, or trainer, had given me a wave from the back of his pachyder m soon after my arrival in Sullia. Except the ant passengers didn't appear to be giving instructions to their beast of burden. Why were they there? I could see no evidence that the minors were cleaning or protecting their mount. I decided they were probably hitching a ride for a simple and practical reason: it takes less energy to ride than it does to walk. The smaller the individual, the more energy walking takes. Being bused by large ants saves the colony energy. While I was in the entomologist's 'compromising position', my nose practically brushing the frenzied ant workers that scur ried beneath me, a young man of about my age walked up. Oblivious to my rapture over the ants, he started a conversation by saying his name was Rajaram Dengodi, which he explained meant 'King God of All Mankind,' and inviting me for lunch. It turned out he was the son of the plantation owners and lived with his parents at the edge of the palm grove. When I arrived at their low whitewashed house, he proclaimed that I'd be sharing his room for the month. Despite the grandeur of his name, Raja was a low-key fellow with no apparent ambition other than to strum his guitar. But he proved an admirable companion and was eager to learn about ants. During that first week, I mapped the plantation and decided where to concentrate my search. Then Raja and I set about following the activities of the local Pheidologeton diversus. It quickly became evident that the colonies were huge. We saw several migrations with dense legions of ants moving their larvae and pupae to new nest sites, which suggested the workers numbered in the hundreds of thousands. We also witnessed the hunting and harvesting of meals on a massive scale. The workers carrying food moved along well-demarcated roads that remained active day after day. In time, I would learn that these tracks had as many functions as human road systems. Ant specialists call such persistent routes trunk trails. The marauder ant's trunk trails are substantial structures, with a smooth surface an inch wide. Along them, the ants craft soil walls or even a complete roof of soil. The trails frequently lead belowground, especially where they cross dry or exposed stretches of earth. Hundreds of ants, and sometimes more, crossed back and forth on those trails every minute. In one extreme case I recorded eight thousand workers per minute climbing a cacao tree to flow into and out of a rotten pod over the course of a full day. Marauder ants excel at plundering large foods, such as fruit or carcasses, that take them a while to devour. But these expeditions represent only a small portion of their efforts. At any time, day or night, I could see them travelling from the trunk trails in ever-changing, reticulating networks, or, as Captain Bingham described them in Bur ma, in swar ms. These extended into vegetation and leaf litter, where the ants' activities were hard to document. I confirmed the observations of early naturalists that marauder ants can harvest seeds in bulk. More impressive, the ants returning to the nest laboured by the dozen to cart centipedes, worms, and other creatures that, if viewed through ant eyes, would appear bigger than dinosaurs to us. A few dozen minor workers, each about three millimeters long, easily hefted the head of one of the doves the Dengodis had tried to induce me to eat after they found out Americans eat meat. Later, Raja and I saw a seething mass of workers rip up a live, two-centimeter- long frog, pulling its twitching body taut to the ground and then flaying BOOKBITE Minor workers of the marauder ant riding on an especially large major (a ‘giant’). Mark W Moffett/Minden Pictures.