Ants from a Kilometer Up

So you like insects, but can’t be bothered to get up from your computer to go look for some? Google earth to the rescue!

South of Tucson, Arizona (31°38.097’N 111°03.797’W) I found this lovely aerial image. Visualized from an elevation of about a kilometer and a half, it shows a hill just west of I-19 covered in freshly-sprouted grass. Except, there’s this strange pattern of evenly-spaced polka-dots:


What could account for the speckles? Alien crop-circles? Bizarre gardening accidents?

Why no, those are the nest discs of one of our most conspicuous insects in the Sonoran desert, the red harvester ant Pogonomyrmex barbatus. Down on the ground it is harder to get a sense of the even spacing of the nests, but the discs are plenty obvious. The ants keep the large area around their nest entrance free of vegetation and other unwanted debris. Below is a photo I took south of the Huachuca mountains, not far from the google earth image above:


Even closer-up, here are the engineers:


North American Pogonomyrmex aren’t the only ants whose engineering prowess is visible from low-earth orbit. Some of the more spectacular leafcutter ants in South America make even larger mounds. The image below the fold is also from Google Earth, 1 km over the Paraguayan Chaco (24°06.914’S 57°22.240’W).

The little green speckles are Copernicia palm trees, but what are the white pimples?


They are ant nests, of course! The chaco leafcutter Atta vollenweideri makes earthen mounds several meters wide to house the million-plus ants in the colony. Up close mounds look like so (with a pair of Peace Corps volunteers thrown in for scale):


Here’s the critter responsible:


I’m pretty sure these aren’t the only cases where insect activity can be seen in Google Earth. I’d bet there are places where Australian meat ant nests might show up, or African termite mounds. Plenty of opportunity for the deskbound entomologist to go hunting!

15 thoughts on “Ants from a Kilometer Up”

  1. Although I’ve never thought to look from orbit to see them, we have black, and sometimes red, harvester ants that create large areas stained white from their feces and discarded seed hulls, and cleared of vegetation.

    I always find their antics fun to watch, but stay out of the way, they are some of the larger ant species for our area, (Northern California) and they carry wicked mandibles!

    We also have some sort of red or brown ants that come out only at night, and they are every bit as large as black carpenter ants. I’ve never found any nest for them. I am assuming they live in or around our white oaks, much like their smaller, stinkier cousins who inhabit the trees in great numbers.

    Thanks for the ‘bird’s eye’ and closeup views of these fascinating insects!

    I love bugs!

  2. That is amazing! My son is fascinated by all things insect and has a large quantity of ant colonies in the kitchen. But the ones in France aren’t as exciting as these!

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