…By the time we reached the the top of the mountain, Wasmannia had disappeared from the old growth forest and the native fauna appeared to us as it must have appeared to W. M. Mann the century before. Yet what the forest gave to us in specimen rewards, it took from us in bodily harm. The second day forced us across the river six times before we could begin our ascent up the mountain. Even if we hadn’t crossed so many times, the constant deluge would have left us just as soaked. Rain coated the steep mud trail with a frictionless layer of slip, causing Evan, Jon and I to perform a fine stooge routine as we fell one after the other in complex patterns of synchronicity. We are ants climbing a fluon-rimmed tub I meditated, searching for in vain for clean spot of pant leg upon which to rub muddy hands.
The local fellows did the entire hike with hands holding our bags and 20 kilo bags of rice — their feet bare of shoes – just as we might stroll down a neighborhood street. What for us was a will-bending, bottom-bruising, eight hour struggle was literally the two hour walk home from school for the village children. All the houses built atop the mountain were constructed from forest materials or hiked up 800 meters on the backs of men and women.
The mud, humiliation and bruises were well worth the fine hauls of ants our party was bringing in. Although I kept one eye out for small dark myrmicines that smelled like Lordomyrma, the bread and butter of this expedition was Malaise trapping and Winkler sifting. Malaise trapping involves pitching tent of insect fabric specially designed to funnel intercepted insects into a collecting bottle at the apex of the roof, and then down into a puddle of 95% liquid doom. Malaise traps are an excellent way to passively collect the arboreal ant fauna without having to climb trees. It’s kind of like sticking your fishing pole between a couple of rocks and putting it on autopilot while you knock off for a few beers.
Only, we didn’t have any beers. What we did have were Winklers (or “winkles” to use a term of more intimate endearment). What Malaise traps are to arboreal ants, winkles are to ground dwelling ants. The idea here is to chop up a square meter of forest litter with a good sharp nasty looking bush knife, prey there are no Odontomachus down there, then toss the goods into a tied off bag with a section of 1/4″ screen in the middle.
You shake the dickens out of the rotting leaves and humus and downed twigs until your arms hurt, admire the ounce of particulate matter collected at the bottom of your bag, think about how many eye-popping arthropods are scrambling about down there, then convince your field assistant its his turn to do the next shake. Back at camp you fill up mesh bags with the sifted litter, hang those in an extracting bag, and watch as ant after ant crawls out the mesh and lands in a puddle of 95% doom.
There are a couple dangers of winklin’ in the rain. The first is that all the ants stick to the mud. The second is that the big nasty sharp bush knife gets slippery and the blade occasionally slices through your sock and opens up your shin. When your local guide roots around the jungle for a certain vine and squeezes the milk out into your wound, that’s when you just have to pray he knows what he’s doing. Not that ANYTHING like that happened on this expedition, though…