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Army Ant Colonies

Forget lions, tigers and bears. When it comes to the art of war, army ants are among the most fearsome creatures on earth. With powerful mouthparts, these fighters can deftly cut creatures much larger than themselves to pieces. Acting together in large numbers, army ant colonies manage to make tens of thousands of such kills each day. However, their capabilities have limits. Contrary to popular belief, they almost never take down large animals or people.

One of the best places to observe army ants is Barro Colorado, an island in a lake created by the Panama Canal. The island is home to up to 50 colonies of Eciton burchellii, the most studied army ant in the world. It is one of 150 types of army ants in the New World. more than 170 other types live in Asia, Africa and Australia.

Colonies of this army ant are huge, ranging from 300,000 to 700,000 ants. They never stay in one place for long, moving from nest site to nest site. Linking their legs together, they use their own bodies to form huge nests called bivouacs, which they hang under a fallen tree. They stay there for about 20 days as the queen lays up to 300,000 eggs.

When the ants go hunting, up to 200,000 of them leave the nest in a group that expands into a 14-meter-wide fan. This swarm raid takes a slightly different course each day, allowing hunters to cover fresh ground each time.

Protecting the ants wherever they go are soldiers, recognizable by their large jaws. If their fearsome appearance doesn’t scare off enemies, the soldiers also pack a powerful bite — and the attack is often suicidal. Because their jaws are hook-shaped, soldiers cannot pull them out again. Amazonian tribes used soldier ants to close wounds, break bodies and leave heads in place.

Eciton burchellii are blind and cannot see what is in front of them, but they move together in such large numbers that they easily kill unarmed ants, insects and other small creatures.

In Japanese, the word ant is written by joining two characters: one means “insect”, the other means “faith”. Indeed, individual ants are completely loyal to their fellow ants. They display many examples of selfless cooperation which, though certainly extreme, cannot fail to win human admiration.

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