Eciton hamatum
Eciton burchellii

It’s hard to look at Eciton soldiers and not wonder what’s up with those evil tusks.

So here it is: those hooked jaws are designed to inflict pain on vertebrates.

I don’t post this for shock value but as a statement of fact. The ant uses them to snare offending animals and anchor herself to their skin. Once hooked, she uses her stinger (a sharp lance at the butt end of the insect) to inject venom. It’s an ingenious trick. Removing a stinging insect attached with fishing hooks is not easy.

Army ant bivouacs conceal piles of tasty larvae, and army ant raids gather concentrated stores of valuable rainforest protein. Many a mammal or bird could feast well off the army ants, and it is the job of the soldier to make such attempts as unpleasant as possible.

Outside their defensive post, soldiers are useless. Those tusks do not permit them to capture or carry prey, nor are they suitable for tending to brood.

Enough biology, though. Which species’ sting hurts more?

No question. Eciton burchelli has both a nastier sting and less trepidation about using it.

In the grand scheme of insect-induced agony, surprisingly, army ants rank low. I’d rate them as somewhat less painful than the common honey bee. Makes for a dramatic photo, though, even if I am shamelessly ripping off Mark Moffett.

14 thoughts on “Ouch?”

  1. Mark’s picture has blood, though, so it will sell better.

    A serious question, though, have you ever seen these soldiers eat? I have not and always wondered how they go about it?

    Come to think of it, I don’t have much recollection of seeing any army ants eating. (just once in a captive colony)

  2. Years ago whilst in the Madre de Dios region of Peru I was gaily walking through the jungle when I felt a sharp sting in the nether regions. Of course, the natural reaction was to reach down and rip the offending beasty off, however being a bit perturbed by the whole experience I didn’t get a good look at it as I threw it aside. It was only a couple of hours later when I was back at camp that I went to the toilet to assess the damage. To my horror, I discovered the head and jaws still firmly clamped on to one of my balls.

    Don’t know what species it was and alas I didn’t take a photo…

  3. I don’t know if everyone has in their heads somewhere a formative image from NatGeo that stuck with them through their lives, but mine is a researcher visiting the rainforest who learned that army ants were used as sutures for lacerations: induce them to bite to hold the sides of a cut together, and then snap them off below the head. I would say this was urban (or scientific) legend, except the image of the cut neatly bridged by 6 or 7 ant heads is very vivid in my memory.

  4. Don’t some termites have soldiers also specially designed to ‘appeal’, if you will, to vertebrate pain? Yet another case of convergence in termites and ants.

    If the ants and termites decide to call off their arms race and take over the world, we mammals may just be screwed.

  5. The soldiers are probably fed by the workers (trophallaxis). I suspect most major workers with specialized mandibles need to be fed by the workers. The slave-making Polyergus are dependent on their slaves for food, as their scimitar-like mandibles are useless for dismembering prey.

    1. There is scant (or no?) evidence for trophallaxis in these critters, Terry, hence my question.

      As for Polyergus, with which I’ve spent a lot of time over the years, I have indeed observed several species of them being fed by the Formica with which they live. Their mandibles, occasionally used for biting, are as well or perhaps even better adapted, by virtue of their curvature and denticles, for safely transporting pupae during raids.

    1. Not so bad as it looks, TGIQ. The trouble with army ants is their sheer numbers. One ant is fine. It’s a pretty mild sting and the mandibles normally don’t sink deep enough to do much damage.

  6. Pingback: Eciton enjoying a light snack – MYRMECOS - Insect Photography - Insect Pictures

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