Australia is a great country, especially if you are interested in ants. We have ants that live on tidal mud flats and have to waterproof their colony against each flooding tide and weaver ants which use their larvae as living sewing machines to stitch leaves together to form shelter.
Then we have my favourite, the genus Myrmecia commonly known as bull or jumper ants. As ants go they are large – reaching almost 4cm with mandibles (jaws) that would not look out of place in the next Alien vs Predator movie. Being a “primitive” ant group they share a very important body part with their relatives the wasps, within their gaster (last of the 3 body segments) they retain a brutally painful sting.
Myrmecia nigrocincta is one of the more commonly encountered of this group, found along most of the east coast of Australia. They are solitary huntresses (male ants are only seen during breeding flights – more on that in another article) with highly developed vision enabling them to see clearly for up to 1m. Their movement is stately and graceful with a purposeful and wary air, the hallmark of a true predator.
While their colony is underground they are most often found patrolling the leaves of nearby trees and shrubs in search of something to eat. M. nigrocincta will grab suitable prey with their powerful jaws and sting it multiple times. They do the same to people who are too busy photographing them to realise how close they are.
When threatened they spin to face their attacker with wide-open mandibles and wave their antennae energetically, scenting the air. If the threat moves closer the ant will often leap forward, covering 2-3 times her bodylength with each bound. That’s 6-10cm per leap. It’s not a pleasant discovery to find out that an agitated ant can jump forward faster than you can wiggle backwards.
Despite their small individual size, ants can be one of the most influential species in a given environment. Whether they are swarming your picnic, making an entomologist squeal or affecting which species of tree can grow around their colony, they are endlessly fascinating creatures. So next time you see an ant why not take a closer look before you grab the insecticide?
For all things ant check out the CSIRO Ants Down Under website
Or for some more amazing ant photography see Alex Wild Photography