Paraponera clavata, the bullet ant

Paraponera clavata worker, Misahuallí, Ecuador

Meet the bullet ant.

Why is it called that? Well, the searing sting of this New World tropical species apparently feels like a gunshot wound. It tops Justin Schmidt’s 4-point sting pain index:

Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.

Paraponera clavata is one of those animals, like jaguars and monkeys, that everybody talks about in the rain forest. While there are certainly deadlier animals lurking in the Amazon, some snakes and big cats, Paraponera is respected as a more everpresent threat. It is one of the most dangerous species you are liable to encounter on a daily basis. The giant, inch-long workers are commonly seen walking up and down tree trunks as they travel from their soil nests up to the rich foraging grounds of the forest canopy.

And just how dangerous is the infamous bullet ant?

Actually, not so much as you’d think. Stories of people coming to permanent harm or death from Paraponera stings are rare. Mostly, the experience just hurts a lot. Or so I’m told. In taking these photographs not once did any of the ants try to sting me, even when walking on my hand.

While Paraponera is popularly known for the sting, Myrmecologists like these insects for a different reason: it’s an odd evolutionary relict. Paraponera clavata is a single species in the lone genus in its subfamily, Paraponerinae, that last shared an ancestor with other ants over 90 million years ago. That’s right back near the very origin of the ant family. This single lineage represents a unique evolutionary trajectory stemming from the early poneroid ants, and as such is invaluable for comparative studies on ant form, behavior, and ecology.

Whether you’re intrigued by the fear factor or interested in more scholarly pursuits, Paraponera is an animal worth looking out for during your next Neotropical vacation.

More bullet ant photos here.

39 thoughts on “Paraponera clavata, the bullet ant”

  1. And speaking of extra long tongues, that is quite an extensible labium Paraponera has!

    I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to pop this question — For a long time these were thought to be close to Ectatomma, which they do rather resemble. To wit:
    And seems to me I heard some muttering about Paraponera possibly being closer to Myrmecia than to poneromorphs. Is this another sort of Martialis-Anomalomyrma situation?

    1. I looked at Paraponera morphology quite extensively, and I have to say they really show a mixture of features from different subfamilies: their maxillae are very Ponerinae like; their mandibles and antennal sockets very Ectatomminae like; while the petiole and gaster has some Myrmeciinae features. Reading Bill Brown’s monographs, I can see why they were classified as allied to ectatommines for a long time: they were considered ponerines in the old, inclusive sense (meaning, NOT-any other derived subfamily), that had the antennal sockets NOT-together like currently recognized ponerines, and large frontal lobes. Those were ectatommines (even including proceratiines). Now, all those features happen to be plesiomorphies.

      While Paraponera seems to be a real relic, in-between lineages, I am very skeptical of its current position as sister to Tatuidris (basically). Both groups are very long branches, and it seems we have the usual problem of a phylogenetic artifact. Not sure how we are going to deal with this.

      1. Thanks, Roberto, for your typically insightful comments! I agree re: Tatuidris. Resolving these deep relationships may come down to shared rare genomic events.

    1. Thansk roberto, very interesting. And looking forward to what others will say, too…

      In Ecuador a couple of years ago, I let a variety of Pseudomyrmex spp. sting me to compare the results, but I couldn’t bring myself to let one of these giants sting me. Accident or purposeful experience, Ted?

      1. Accidental – I had been warned about them and was very careful, but one day I found a tree fall and was crawling through it picking off beetles. I leaned my arm against a branch and got nailed! Definitely the most painful sting I’ve ever experienced.

  2. Justin Schmidt is also the only person I’ve every seen cited on the topic of what velvet mites taste like (he reportedly says they “taste unpleasant”). I wonder if he is also going to come up with an insect flavor index?

    1. Is this the ant they use for a men’s coming-of-age ceremony in a certain South American tribe? They put the ants to sleep using a certain temporary poison, then they weave them into a kind of glove which they put on the boy. When the ants wake up, they sting (or bite, I don’t know which end they use) his hand until he nearly dies of pain. On the first anniversary of this ordeal, he is put through it again, and is thereby able to compare two kinds of agony: the one for which he was initially unprepared, and the one which he knew only two well, and could feel anxious about for the whole year.

  3. Any evolutionary explanation for such a powerful sting? Could it be related with an specialized prey which, perhaps, has developed an strong resistance?

    1. I’d like to know the answer to that, too. I don’t know anyone has figured out yet what tarsal fur does, but a glandular association seems a good starting hypothesis.

  4. That’s fascinating, Alex. Everything I’ve seen and read has made these guys out to be easily provoked and horribly memorable for the experience. Yet here they are being docile and reasonable. Very cool!

  5. I was stung by ants on 3 occasions during the 6 months I was in Panama, twice by bullet ants and once by yellow and black ants that were somewhat smaller but also had colonies in trees. I was working for the Peregrine Fund, and one of my jobs included using ropes to pull dead rats into trees for fledgling Harpy Eagles, nearly always in the dark. Our ropes stayed in the trees and were used as walkways by the ants. We’d flick the ropes to try to remove all ants, but it obviously didn’t always work. I can honestly say that these stings were the most painful experience in my life thus far. During the third occasion, I was actually stung in 3 spots, and I tried everything in our medical bin– even hemorrhoid cream- to try to stop the horrible throbbing pain! Miraculously, Neosporin with pain relief worked to dull the pain.

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  7. I would love to know what the yellow and gold ant is mentioned by Lisa Above. I live in the central pacific of Costa Rica and have found a nest of 3/4 inch long ants with gold(yellow) gasters that seem pretty hostile.

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  9. You can find lots of victims to these ants in the scores of military members that have attended the Jungle Operations Training Center at Ft. Sherman, Panama (myself included). Definitely a painful sting that left a large indurated mass at the bite site for an extended period of time. I’m not sure if the indurated site is typical for the stings of these monsters. I’m not scared of much but I’ll climb down from my man chair for these guys. Fire ants and paraponera are 2 of the scariest creatures on this planet.

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