Ento-musings from the University of Kentucky Department of Entomology

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What Army Ants Are—And What They Are Not

"They came at noon the second day. Their approach was announced by the wild unrest of the horses, scarcely controllable now either in stall or under rider, scenting from afar a vapor instinct with horror.
       "It was announced by a stampede of animals, timid and savage, hurtling past each other; jaguars and pumas flashing by nimble stags of the pampas, bulky tapirs, no longer hunters, themselves hunted, outpacing fleet kinkajous, maddened herds of cattle, heads lowered, nostrils snorting, rushing through tribes of loping monkeys, chattering in a dementia of terror; then followed the creeping and springing denizens of bush and steppe, big and little rodents, snakes, and lizards."
So wrote German author Carl Stephenson in "Leiningen Versus the Ants" (1938), describing the wave of Brazilian fauna fleeing the scourge of "The Naked Jungle" (as the 1954 film adaptation of Stephenson's story was entitled): army ants, capable of bringing down a fleet-footed stag and skeletonizing the body within seven minutes. This ferocious horde faces an obstacle in the person of Leiningen, a manful plantation owner who plans to defeat the bloodthirsty insects through cunning, manpower (in the form of hapless Indian laborers who must trust in the Great White Hope of their boss' wisdom), and casual misogyny ("Critical situations first become crises ... when oxen or women get excited"). 

Leiningen "would send these vermin back to the hell where they belonged, somehow, anyhow", and he naturally succeeds in the end: for how could any primal "devil's spawn" withstand the zeal of a Caucasian planter devised near racialism's zenith in Germany? Despite the fact that Leiningen's two-fisted, nobly testosterone-laden struggles against the "evil black throng" would be idiotic in reality—his vertebrate-devouring foe doesn't exist in South America, for one thing; and for another thing, army ants' visits are welcomed eagerly by farmers. 

Clearly, there are many misconceptions concerning the army ants: to remedy this is the mission of the latest post on my personal blog.