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.