With safaris shut on weekends on account of the weekend curfew during the pandemic, the otherwise buzzing Kabini River Lodge wore a deserted look. To add to that, the incessant monsoon rain had kept tourists away that weekend. The lodge however, was open for folks who wanted to stay there and enjoy nature walks. I decided to explore wildlife within the camp and set out in search of spiders, butterflies, frogs and the otherwise lesser-photographed jewels of nature.
Shivanand, a naturalist at the camp, asked me if I was interested in photographing an ant colony that had nested right next to the main reception area of the property. I jumped at the opportunity and headed out to the site. The species in question here was Harpegnathos saltator, commonly known as the Jumping Ant.
Native to India, Jumping Ants have long, extended mandibles and significantly large eyes. They are predatory by nature and are known to make long leaps, often catching insects mid-air. Hence the name, Jumping Ants. Colour morphism runs in the species and they also come with black heads instead of the usual red, like the ones in this colony.
At first, the nest appeared to be a very bright yellow patch on the ground. On closer look, to my disbelief, I saw that the ants had in fact decorated the nest with yellow flowers. They had used the flower petals of the Cassia fistula tree. The ants had picked up petals from the forest floor and dropped them around the entry to their nest.
We do not know why they decorate their nests this way. One theory is that they use bright flowers so that they can locate their nests easily – just like the Bower birds in Papua New-Guinea.
Deeply humbled, I decided to sit down with them for the rest of the noon to see what goes on around the nest. Apart from the pretty flowers, the ants were also bringing home snail shells and laying them upon the flowers. I wondered if they were using them like dead weights so that the petals don’t fly away in the breeze.
Enough décor, it was now time to stack up the treasury!
Jumping Ants are merciless killers and will take on insects several times their own size. They catch them by making long leaps at the prey, grabbing them with their mandibles and then finish them off with a final sting.
Once the prey is immobilised, it is brought back to the colony and goes straight down to the treasury. Crickets, cockroaches, flies, larvae, and everything that I had ever seen on the forest floor seemed to be a part of their menu. They certainly were the top predators around this patch of the forest.
Unlike other ant colonies that comprise thousands of individuals, the H.saltator colony appeared to be quite small. In fact, that entire afternoon, I only saw about 3-4 individuals at the colony entrance, arranging flowers and about 20 individuals that returned with food. They are believed to be more active in the mornings.
Research has it that in H.saltator colonies, the hierarchy between the queen and the workers can sometimes be relaxed and some workers can mate and lay fertilised eggs just like the queen. These workers are termed gamergates.
New colonies are founded independently by single queens, and on aging, they are replaced by several gamergates. The gamergates are also known to shrink their brain size and expand their ovaries for this purpose. The gamergates copulate with males from their own colonies, and being inbred, are related to the original founding queen. Colonies never undergo fission to form new colonies.
It was now three hours since I sat down with them and the light was fading fast. I packed up for the day completely in awe of these tiny little creatures.
One must always have equal appreciation in nature for everything, from a tiny ant to the mighty elephant; or in this case, an ant that looks like an elephant!