If Eciton burchellii receives a disproportionately large share of scrutiny, here’s an army ant that suffers the converse fate of chronic inattention:
Labidus coecus was the first army ant I ever saw in the field.
A narrow column emerged briefly above ground and underfoot as I lined up to get vaccinations as a fresh Peace Corps trainee in Asuncion, Paraguay. The ants had a fetid odor I was not expecting and were as shiny as glass.
Labidus coecus is ubiquitous from southern Texas to northern Argentina and is a master of the underground realm. There’s a great deal I could write about it, but I’ll defer to the inimitable Jack Longino:
This is one of the most remarkable of all army ant species. It has an extremely broad ecological tolerance. It occurs across a great latitudinal range, from the equator to the subtropics of both North and South America. It occurs in dry forest and wet forest, in primary forest and in second growth, in coffee farms and pastures, and in suburban yards. It occurs from sea level to high montane regions. The highest ant record I have for Costa Rica, a collection at 3000m near Villa Mills, is Labidus coecus.
The species is almost entirely subterranean, sometimes at considerable depth…
…In the study of army ants, most of the attention has focused on the large epigaeus species in the genus Eciton. But the highest density and most ecologically important army ants may turn out to be L. coecus. Kaspari and O’Donnell (2003) have estimated that every square meter of rainforest floor may be visited nearly daily by army ants, largely due to high densities of L. coecus found in sample plots of rainforest leaf litter.
Contrast the efforts foisted on the conspicuous above-ground E. burchellii with that of the abundant, but secretively subterranean, Labidus coecus:
Studies of an underground insect will be logistically difficult, of course, but L. coecus is surely an important enough animal to merit more research than it has received.
[addendum: see Scott Powell’s excellent post on the frugivorous tendencies of this species.]