Good Reading : July 2010
Conn Iggulden and the Mongolian Empire What to read in Cairo Is it true? Do women read more than men? The bookshelf of MARK DAPIN Our guide to a booklover's Canberra ORDER YOUR COPY NOW! NEXT ISSUE on sale 28 July the meat. Raja and I studied the action with both hor ror and a newfound respect. That was the day I named them marauder ants. Though Sullia was in no danger from the ant swarms, it was easy to believe Bingham's report from Bur ma that droves of this species could overwhelm a village. Raja enthusiastically told me how the ants would sometimes pour into the family pantry and make off with supplies of rice and dried condiments. At dinner we reported to Raja's parents about the marauders' feats of predation, which I described as astonishing, particularly because the workers have no stinger, the weapon with which many predatory ants -- especially those species in which the workers carry on alone or in small groups -- disable victims. Mr and Mrs Dengodi, who took everything I said with great seriousness, no matter how eccentric the subject, listened as I explained that the marauders' success with gargantuan prey seemed to rely on a coordinated group attack in which workers, individually inept, pile on high and deep, biting and pulling in such numbers that the victim doesn't have a chance. I could attest personally to the effectiveness of that approach. While watching the frog, I'd made the mistake of standing in a throng of marauders. The sheer volume of the minor workers' bites was enough to drive me away, with one major lacerating a fold of skin between my fingers. This scale of operations brought to my mind the most infamous raiders of all: the ar my ants. As a teenager in America's heartland, far from any jungles, I had devoured popular descriptions of ar my ant swar ms killing everything in their path. The stories often relied on florid writing, most famously in an unforgettable story by Carl Stephenson, first published in a 1938 issue of Esquire, 'Leiningen versus the Ants': 'Then all at once he saw, starkly clear and huge, and, right before his eyes, fur red with ants, towering and swaying in its death agony, the pampas stag. In six minutes -- gnawed to the bones. God, he couldn't die like that!' Although this is hyperbole, ar my ants do have an appetite for flesh and a coordinated battle plan that depends on sheer force of numbers. Like many ar my ants, marauders have no stingers. Rather than incapacitating prey with stings, they mob it. This gang-style predatory attack is just one element of both ants' complex routine. How much deeper did the resemblance go? I knew that cur rently there are as many species of ant as there are of bird -- perhaps 10 000 to 12 000 -- and that the marauder and the ar my ant are no more closely related than the hawk and the dove. Convergence is the process by which living things independently evolve to become alike, as a result of like responses to similar conditions or challenges. The wings of bats, birds, and bugs are convergent because they are limbs that have been independently modified to function in flight; the jaws of humans and the mandibles of insects are convergent because both can be used to hold objects and chew food. If the marauder ant and ar my ants proved to be alike in how they hunt and capture prey, it would be a similarly marvellous example of evolutionary convergence.That day in Sullia as I watched the ants dispatch that unfortunate frog, I made a decision that would affect the first years of my budding professional life: I would study the kill strategy of the marauder ant. I would make that my quest. Excerpted from Adventures among Ants: A global safari with a cast of trillions by Mark W Moffett, published by the University of California Press, r rp $49.95. © 2010 by Mark W Moffett.