As a young boy growing up in urban Bangalore, I was drawn to the fascinating macro world of ants. My father, an entomologist, studied social insects and nurtured my interest in these incredible creatures. Not only did he answer my many questions, he also gifted me his magical set of magnifying lenses and always attempted answering my endless questions, such as, “which species is that one, what about this one, does this one bite…? ” I must say that I knew more names of ants at that age than I do now!
That doesn’t mean that I’m still not in awe of them. One ant I had learned about and watched as a teenager became an obsession of sorts. It stood out from the crowd. It was commonly called the Jumping Ant or Harpegnathos saltator. For me, it was one of the coolest ants in the Western Ghats. It had long, sharp, curved mandibles, akin to an elephant’s tusks, large dark eyes and the ability to hop like a grasshopper. Also, unlike most other common ant species that can be seen in large numbers, this one was almost a solitary hunter, living in small colonies on the forest floor, easy to miss, unless you know what you are looking for.
One lazy afternoon, in the Jungle Lodges property at Kabini, I decided to go for a walk along the nature trail. A few hundred metres into the walk I noticed some neatly assembled, nearly circular set of bright-yellow Cassia fistula flower petals on the forest floor. There was no sign of petals anywhere else on the trail, so this yellow cluster stood out in stark contrast to rest of the surroundings. I knelt down to have a closer look.
As I watched, a moving yellow petal on a leaf caught my attention. Suddenly I realized, it was a jumping ant carrying a piece of a Cassia fistula petal. It took the petal and placed it at the entrance of its nest. Just as it did that and returned the way it came, another one popped its head out of the small entrance hole, picked up the petal and placed it two inches away from the nest hole. I had never seen such behaviour of ants decorating their nests before and I was transfixed.
I settled down on the trail watching the nest and every few minutes a worker ant came traipsing in, either with a flower petal, which was invariably dropped outside the nest, or more commonly, an insect – ranging from moths, to cockroaches, spiders and even grasshoppers. I was amazed that this little ant could carry a grasshopper, perhaps close to a hundred times its own weight. A little later, I watched a Jumping Ant as it carried a solid pebble, which was probably something close to a thousand times its own weight! Incredible, isn’t it? New research suggests that some of these ants can carry objects weighing close to 2000 times their own body weight and much of this is due to micro structures around the ant’s neck-joint that allows them to shoulder incredibly heavy loads.
That amazing trait apart, the Jumping Ant is an accomplished hunter. They are like little tigers of the leaf litter, solitarily hunting down their prey of arthropods like, spiders, crickets, moths, butterflies and grasshoppers. They make spectacular leaps into the air and grasp fast-moving prey with their long forceps-like pair of mandibles armed with tiny sensory hair. Once caught, the prey is immobilized with a sting in order to preserve them alive. Unlike most other jumping insects that are mainly propelled by their well-developed pair of hind legs, the jumping ants are unique in the fact that they use both their mid and hind pairs synchronously to generate the leap. Thus, Jumping Ants, equipped with large eyes, powerful mandibles and an incredible ability to jump are formidable predators of the leaf litter.
Another cool thing I learned about the ants is that they are not alone inside the nests. They share a special relationship with a fly belonging to the family Milichiidae. The larvae of these flies are mainly saprophagous – they feed on dead or decaying matter. Although all other ants of the same tribe take prey remains out of the nest, the Harpegnathos ant simply discards the organic debris in a special refuse chamber. The flies take advantage of this and rear their larvae within the nest of the Harpegnathos, providing the essential service of garbage disposal.
Overall, this is one cool ant you wouldn’t want to miss. Find yourself a magnifying glass, or attach a macro lens onto your camera and prepare to be amazed by the extraordinary Jumping Ant!