FROM DEEP within the towering jungle, at the very extremity of the coffee plantation, a spine-chilling noise is heard by all. Hooves and claws drum upon the ground, branches crack, animals wail in fear. The workers down tools and stare in dread towards the forest; they know what’s out there, they know what’s coming.
Panicked animals, tapirs, jaguars, snakes and monkeys, burst from the tree line, scattering like fowl across the open fields. There is but one concern upon their minds – escape from that which hunts them.
Leiningen stands alongside the local commissioner, observing the exodus from his open porch. The two men drip with sweat, shirts plastered to backs, hair matted and damp. The Amazon is a humid place.
“Señor Leiningen, you must leave. The animals, they run from the Marabunda, and so my friend, must you.”
“The Marabunda, what is that?”
“Certain death, señor, a marching army of killer ants, twenty miles long and two miles wide. They destroy everything in their path.”
“Si señor, everything! They will strip a man to his bones in minutes.”
“Well, commissioner, thanks for coming out here to warn me, but I have worked too hard at this plantation to give in to a gang of mindless bugs.”
“I tell you señor, you don’t know these ants, you don’t know these ants!”
And with that, the nervous man hastily retreats to his riverboat, leaving the plantation owner to the horrors of the forest.
This 1954 movie named “The Naked Jungle,” an adaptation of Carl Stephenson’s famous book “Leiningen Versus the Ants,” pitted Charlton Heston, an American coffee grower, against a deadly horde of killer ants. In the film, the unstoppable insects engulf his precious crops, before moving onto the livestock and staff. Nothing deters them, not even a trench full of burning oil.
In typical Hollywood style, a genre was spawned, and for a while the silver screen crawled with mutant ants. They attacked cities and towns, devastated nations, became giants and set themselves upon the road to global domination.
But where did such outlandish ideas originate? Are killer ants really out there, waiting for an opportunity to take over the earth?
The scorer production crew decided to find out, and along the way, create their own ‘Killer Ants’ movie for the BBC.
We were a small team, three men and one colossal robot named ANT-CAM, a remote-controlled camera system specially designed to go where no man could – into the ferocious heart of a killer ant hive.
Our mission was to uncover the truth behind the legend no matter the risks, and come back with a film unlike any seen before.
And so began a journey, one that took us from Central America’s steaming jungles to Africa’s Masai villages.
Professor E.O. Wilson, the greatest myrmecologist the world has ever known, once said, “The foreign policy of ants can be summed up as follows: genocidal annihilation. If ants had nuclear weapons they would probably end the world in a week.”
With this in mind, I waved goodbye to my family at the airport and wondered if this was such a smart idea.
First stop: the forests of Costa Rica.
It’s hot work hauling 300 kilos of equipment along winding woodland trails, and we all smell a bit like bush pigs by the time our destination is reached. I feel dizzy in the forty-degree humidity and sweat stings my eyes, but we waste no time resting; instead we immediately set to work assembling our automated team member.
Mounted on a mobile crane and maneuvered by remote control, ANT-CAM’s miniature lenses should permit us to get down amongst the ants themselves, infiltrating the hunt without being noticed.
We soft-bodied humans will be stationed at a secure distance.
The robot’s eyes will be our eyes, and everything it sees will be transmitted to an optical monitor.
As long as we don’t move about and produce vibrations for the killers to home in on, we should be relatively safe. They won’t see us; most army ant species have no eyes.
The radio on my belt crackles to life causing me to jump involuntarily. We’re all a little nervy.
“It’s a big swarm, moving fast. ETA in about fifteen minutes. Are you set up yet? The front is coming in from the west, no wait a minute, east also, they’re all around me now; I can’t cross the.. Ow, they’re biting me.” Static followed by silence.
“Hello Sasha? Hello Sasha?” No response.
I turn to the Martin and Ralph, Ant-Cam’s operators and convey the message: “We’ve lost contact with our field operative; the ants are on their way.”
For a while the forest turns eerily silent, but for the sound of pestilent mosquitoes. Then the quietude breaks, replaced by a strange unearthly hiss.
It is the voice of light rain, but the skies above are cobalt blue.
The menacing hiss draws closer, all around, louder and more intense. We all still drip with sweat, but not necessarily due to the heat.
“Get ready,” orders Martin “Monitor on?”
“Monitor on!” Ralph replies.
“Power up system and tilt camera one!”
ANT-CAM jolts into life as the switches are thrown. It rolls forward on wheels, lowering its single eye with fluid grace and whirring motors. It’s a tense moment; after all, this is the first ever field trial of our robot, and our first encounter with the legendary ants. We are about to be swarmed by the very same insects which converted Leiningen’s staff into pearly white bones. Will we be reduced to skeletons, scattered around a jumble of lenses and electrical components? This is a most worrying thought.
I begin to spy movements up ahead twitching in the leaf litter, and then suddenly the exodus is upon us. Not tapirs and monkeys as in the movie, but cockroaches, scorpions and spiders. A seriously perturbed tortoise moving at velocity vanishes into the shrubbery. I was not aware that they could move so fast!
Behind the refugees, the earth is blackened with ants, an insidious wave, flowing like oil across the forest floor. The hissing sound is now much louder, a million tiny feet on the march.
Upon the monitor we spot the first victim fall. It’s a sizable scorpion, thrashing madly with a stinger dripping in venom. Swiftly the unfortunate creature vanishes beneath a writhing mass of ants; its powerful amour, sharp claws and formidable poison are no match against such overwhelming odds. Within seconds it succumbs, and thrashes no more.
In “The Naked Jungle” a deer is flensed in under six minutes. The scorpion takes a lot longer than that, and over an hour later it is still being stretched this way and that.
The ants enthusiastically chew on the joints until eventually it begins to break apart, at which point the neatly butchered pieces are borne away by precisely organized work gangs.
Up ahead the swarm moves on, twenty-five meters wide and five meters deep, a living, breathing carpet of death. As ANT-CAM follows the devastation, we witness many more creatures meeting a similar fate to that of the hapless scorpion. I target a grasshopper and carefully follow one of its legs as it is carried away from the frontline action. Eventually, the dismembered body part finds its way into a two-way traffic lane, a highway of frantic ants traveling back and forth between the battle ground and an unseen camp.
I continue to follow it for a hundred meters or so until I am lead directly to the bivouac, a seething metropolis of carnivorous insects. The air smells acrid, pungent and sharp; the stench of bio weapons: stingers and sprays.
Sasha is already here, taking snapshots of the nest, and I am glad to see that her run in with the swarm has left her intact.
“It’s an especially large one, about as big as they get,” she tells me while changing lenses. “A colony this big will likely contain 70,000 adults and weigh as much as seven kilograms. Quite a sight isn’t it?”
Tucked beneath a fallen tree, roughly three feet in diameter, is a furious-looking sphere of ants. They cling together with hooked feet, forming a structure resembling a giant shimmering bath sponge. Yes indeed, quite a sight!
“Because they are such efficient hunters, they cannot afford to build a permanent nest. If they did, the food would soon run out. For this reason, they must relocate to new hunting grounds almost every night,” Sasha continues.
For now, the returning workers carry in butchered body parts, and I watch in fascination as a hairy tarantula leg vanishes into the darkness, absorbed by this bizarre unearthly thing.
Incredibly within the bivouac, the ants structure their bodies to form chambers for the larval brood and tunnels for the transportation of food. The queen, guarded by fierce soldiers and buoyed up by half a million loyal daughters, sits at the very center, protected by an armada stingers and jaws.
Distracted by the drama I get a little too close – with immediate consequences. A pseudopod of ants melts away from the main cluster and homes in, ascending my leg, bighting viciously. A soldier, armed with enormous mandibles, clamps onto my finger and proves most difficult to prize off. I heard that South American tribesmen make use of army ant heads to suture deep wounds; now I see how.
Although I am festooned, after six minutes, to my great relief, I have not been reduced to a pile of polished bones. In fact, army ant mandibles are physically unable to sheer through tough mammalian flesh, and thus it would appear that the man-eating legends of 1954 do not in fact exist; at least not here in Latin America.
Sasha chuckles at my ranting and tells me to stop acting like a baby. “After all, they’re only ants.”
Mount Meru- Tanzania
The Masai elder, garbed in traditional red robes and holding a spear, leads us to the place where the animal was tethered. There is nothing to see.
“The Siafu came in the night, smothered the cow and killed her. They entered through the holes.” He pointed to his nose and ears. “I found her in the morning – covered.”
The local people call them Siafu but the British colonials named them driver ants, a fitting name for an insect which literally drives all living things out from their hiding places as they swarm across the land.
Although similar in habits, the Siafu colonies are much larger than their Costa Rican counterparts, and a single nest can contain 20 million ants weighing an incredible twenty kilograms or more. When one thinks of Africa’s top hunters, lions and leopards spring to mind, but when it comes to sheer numbers, and overall biomass of slaughtered prey, the driver ants win the prize. Unlike the Latin American species, these killers do not limit themselves to invertebrate prey. Siafu will bring down whatever they can.
“Of course, we were not happy, but this was just a cow. When they killed the young man – well, that was different,” said the elder.
Although they do have stings, the African driver ants choose not to use them. They don’t need to; prey is simply overwhelmed by force of numbers. Anything caught in the maelstrom will become an intended victim.
Again, I get too close while changing lenses on ANT-CAM and again, I am swarmed, only this time there is very real pain and very real blood.
With mandibles built like scythes, the driver ants are well equipped to deal with fibrous muscle and tough human skin.
Robert had been a pilot in Tanzania for twenty-five years, ferrying volunteer doctors all over the country on call outs. During that time, he had witnessed just about everything there was to see in regards to medical emergencies . or so he thought. There had been hyena maulings, and snake bites, buffalo tramplings and parasites, but nothing quite as bizarre as the incident involving ants.
He had flown out to the scene but the man was already dead. The man had no apparent injuries – but the lungs and throat had probably been snipped to shreds from within.
“He got drunk, fell, broke his leg and the Siafu found him.”
A North American family on vacation had a brush with death while camping in Tarrengire national park. After putting their baby daughter to bed in a cot they went out to watch the sunset. When the infant began wailing loudly they returned and found their child covered in ants. Luckily the parents were in time and the child was uninjured- the ants had not found a way in.
During our two months in Tanzania we heard many such stories. Robert himself had come back from a two-day trip to discover that his caged rabbits had been reduced to nothing but fur and bones; his neighbor’s pet gaboon viper had suffered the same fate.
But the truth of the matter remains that these cases of attack are extremely rare, especially when one considers that the ants most certainly are not. Victims tend to be those who are physically unable get out of the way (such as the drunk with a broken leg, the baby in a cot, or the tethered cow).
Throughout Africa, villagers live in harmony with Siafu, occasionally inviting them in to their houses for a spring cleaning, as a passing raid will rid a home of dangerous snakes and pestilent rats. There are rules, of course, to living side by side with potential killers, but they are simple ones: wait outside when they come, don’t get in their way, and watch where you step in the dark of the night.
The Africans who have grown up with Siafu in their gardens appreciate them as both benign and beneficial, an animal to be respected but certainly not feared.
So indeed, we did find our legendary “killer ants,” and although not nearly as voracious as the movies would have us believe, they are still impressive enough. I for one am grateful that Siafu are unique in that they are the only ant which intentionally hunts and sometimes kills large mammalian prey. Ants are everywhere and most of them are vicious little critters, armed with chemicals and a seriously “on the edge: attitude. If they were bigger and we were smaller then perhaps those B-movie plots would not be so far fetched after all.