Ants aren’t known for their visual acuity, but there are a few with excellent eyesight. Among these is the lowland Amazonian species Gigantiops destructor. This perky little insect is perhaps the most charming ant I’ve ever met.
While its enormous compound eyes live up to the epithet Gigantiops, this gentle ant certainly doesn’t merit its species name, destructor. Fabricius, the pioneering taxonomist who named G. destructor (as Formica destructor), never saw one alive and likely didn’t realize the timid nature of these ants. Gigantiops destructor is more prone to run than to fight.
The first time I encountered Gigantiops in the field- nearly 10 years ago in Archidona, Ecuador- I had difficultly photographing it because the workers have a curious habit of leaping up on the camera. Gigantiops is a jumper, an unusual mode of locomotion for an ant, and single workers are commonly seen skipping about in the leaf litter.
Gigantiops is not defenseless, however. It has adopted a pair of rather clever strategies borrowing from other ants in the rainforest community. First, Gigantiops often nests near the feared bullet ant, Paraponera clavata. Few animals are foolhardy enough to tamper with the most painful insect sting in the forest, and presumably Gigantiops gains protection by proximity. Second, Gigantiops is a convincing mimic of another painfully stinging ant. The color, texture, size, and yellow-tipped antennae are all shared with the fierce Pachycondyla apicalis:
One other notable fact about Gigantiops: it has no close relatives. The genus holds only one species, and it stems from an ancient formicine lineage that has apparently resisted speciation for millions of years. (Unless, of course, the offshoots were unusually prone to extinction). It’s a tough insect to place in an evolutionary context.
- Beugnon, G. et al. 2001. Colony structure and foraging behavior in the tropical formicine ant, Gigantiops destructor. Insectes Sociaux48: 347–351.
- Kempf, W. W. 1968. Novas observações e estudos sôbre Gigantiops destructor (Fabricius) (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Pap. Avulsos Zool. (Sao Paulo) 21:209-230.
- Wheeler, W. M. 1922. Observations on Gigantiops destructor Fabricius and other leaping ants. Biol. Bull. (Woods Hole) 42: 185-201.
- Gigantiops at antweb