Anting the Solomon Islands, Part I

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High adventure is both the blessing and the curse for the intrepid collector of ants. The tropical rainforests of Melanesia are a veritable Shangri La for those in quest of ants never before scoped at 40x magnification, but to reach that promised land of riches… one must be prepared to sacrifice.

It feels as if someone took a twisted rusty blade and skinned the soles of my feet. The day before I disobeyed the golden rule of hiking and went in wet and dirty socks. The little grits wore though the soggy softened skin of my feet and left a thousand stinging sores. Time is running out to find the Lordomyrma I so desparately need. Earlier in the morning, on the first leg down from the remote interior village of Marone, I put these ruined feet through dreadful paces, forcing myself into a desperate frenzy, going up and down the stream banks, overturning every stone I could find in search of the little beasts and paying no heed to my body’s deteriorating condition.

When I reached the village of Hauta, I climbed onto the porch and took off my wet shoes and socks to assess the damage. Gross. Oozing pustules of raw flesh pockmarked at the fringes and joined together in mass wounds at the trouble spots. Flies started flocking to my feet like carrion. Evan reminds me that this is what the Vietnam vets must mean when they talk about “jungle rot.”

I ask Joseph what they did for this kind of wound. He says, “lemon juice.” Lemon juice? I nod and Joseph disappears into the forest, coming back a few minutes later with a lemon plucked from a garden tree. Stuffing a bandanna between my teeth to keep from biting off my tongue I signal that I am ready. Carefully, Joseph winds a cotton batten around a stick and soaks it in the Mini Mouse cup of lemon juice. He gives me a last look as if to say he is sorry, then applies the saturated swab of mouth puckering liquid to my raw, open wounds.

Wow, that REALLLLY bleepin burns.

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Joseph Waihuru applying a cotten swab soaked in lemon juice to the stumps of agony previously known as Eli's feet.

I had arrived at Makira Island a few days earlier with my expedition partner, Evan Economo from UT Austin, glad to have escaped the grime and crime of Honiara. We had busied ourselves chewing Betelnut and marauding the nearby forest for some of the wonderful ants collected a century earlier by W. M. Mann. The pickings had slimmed considerably since Mann’s jaunt. Wasmannia auropunctata, the Little Fire Ant, had gotten to the island before us, and had lain waste to the livliehoods of the native ants, and the native people.

The Solomon Islanders are for the most part, subsistence farmers. Wasmannia is wreaking havok on their gardens. Many farmers have quit recently, and those who haven’t are harvesting at night when the ants are least active. Still, they pour down from the trees and leaves, bombarding the farmers with scores of painful stings. Wasmannia auropunctata is the scourge of the Pacific. It nests in every habitat imaginable, devours the arthropod biomass, suppresses the native species, and makes a misery of the lives of villagers who have no choice but to share their beds, clothes and meals with them.

A nest of the Little Fire Ant (Wasmannia auropunctata) from Makira Island.
A nest of the Little Fire Ant (Wasmannia auropunctata) from Makira Island.

The ant diversity is noticeably depressed in the lowland forests where reigns Wasmannia, but there are a few native species that managed to persist. One of the more interesting finds was made by Evan, who captured a small colony of Rogeria stigmatica nesting in a downed branch. This species has an absolutely spectacular defense that we observed firsthand, but I’ll refrain from posting the action shots until the account is properly published!

Rogeria stigmatica nesting in a downed branch
Cute little furry Rogeria stigmatica nesting in a downed branch. Don't get these gals upset, though, lest they declare war and unsheath their secret weapons!

Anxious to leave Wasmannia habitat behind, Evan I plotted an expedition up to the higher elevations of interior. The ants are always better just a little higher up the mountain, right? Our local host, John Fassi, helped arrange for guides and porters to take us 800 meters up to the village of Marone. Armed with a few pair of dry socks, bush knives, pooters and winklers we began our march to the first village on the track, Nara.

Expedition party
Expedition party on the way to Nara. Jon Fassi (USP student) in the blue polo shirt. JosephWaihuru with the hair and the goatee to the right of Jon. Evan Economo in (green shirt) & me (yellow shirt) in the "tropically challenged" skin. The rest are porters and Jon's hapless field assistants.

I remember the last time my feet were dry. It was before crossing the Evo river. Fortunately, our savvy guides took our bags from Evan, Jon and I, so all we had to do was keep our balance and not get swept away. The first half of the crossing was okay, but the current started picking up as the channel deepened, and soon enough I was swimming flat out for the other side — all the while getting swept downstream.

Guides and porters ferrying our gear across the Evo River
Joseph and porters ferrying our gear across the Evo River. I should have asked them to carry me, too.

I had all but given up when I heard Evan scream that he found Lordomyrma epinotalis — the fabled ant that, if I could only get a fresh specimen for the phylogeny, was to be the lynchpin of my grand theory of Melanesian biogeography! I renewed my strokes with determined vigor, grabbed a tree root with one hand, a porter’s arm with another, and was hoisted onto dry land. No, no, no! It was not the Lordomyrma. Anguish! Despair! One pair of socks was soaked, but there were two fresh pairs remaining, and a full week to catch my quarry.

And so we marched on, every step in those soaking shoes wearing down the skin just a little bit more…

5 thoughts on “Anting the Solomon Islands, Part I”

  1. I’m off to Makira next week. I met John Fassi in February at the Pacific Science Inter congress. Looks like you guys had a good time. Do you have any photos of the interior. I’m hoping to get to visit some swamps while I’m there.

  2. Hi,

    I my name is Michelle Montgomery and I’m working on the Pacific Ant Project with Cas Vanderwoude, based out of Hilo HI. I am putting together an informational poster presentation on LFA for public outreach purposes and was wondering if I could use some of you photos of LFA. Of course, I will give the proper credit/references. Please let me know.

    Thank you.
    Michelle

    1. Hi Michelle. The LFA photo above belongs to Eli Sarnat, who wrote this post. So you’ll have to ask Eli for permission.

      However, I also have a number of photographs of this species in my gallery here:

      Little Fire Ants

      You’re welcome to use any of those in your poster, so long as you list me in the credits.

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