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Anting the Solomons, Part III

…We had reached the top village, we had sifted great quantities of Wasmannia-free leaf litter, and we had learned the local lore about the Kakamora dwarf people that lived in the forest and granted magical powers to those with the prowess to catch one. Meanwhile, the full week of wet shoes and socks was causing our feet to disintegrate at an alarming pace.
Foot rot.
Foot rot.
The day’s hike back down to Hauta village had been excruciating, and keeping one’s balance going down the muddy track was even more difficult than climbing it. We had gotten a few small myrmicines that we thought might be Lordomyrma, but instead turned out to be a variety of Vollenhovia species. Vollenhovia, like several other genera, has diversified into a remarkable number of species in the Solomons.
Another genus that was always thrilling to find was Leptogenys. True army ants do not occur on the archipelago, so other ground dwelling ants have done their best to fill the empty “insatiable marauder” niche. A few different species of Leptogenys manage an earnestly believable impersonation of the real deal, and strong rivers of the ants are occasionally seen streaming across the trail, cascading into ever smaller rivulets until the frontier of their trajectory is a wide wash of scrambling chaos. The species below, which I believe is undescribed, was found nesting under a stone. It wasn’t Lordomyrma, as I had hoped for, but the find did afford me a brief respite from the foot agony.
Leptogenys sp.
Leptogenys sp.
I hadn’t given up on Lordomyrma, though, and plucked up the courage to spend an hour collecting the banks of a small stream near our lunch stop. Every step felt like stepping on coals, but stream banks always seemed to be a good bet for Lordomyrma in my trips to Fiji and New Guinea. Although the little beasts were not to be found, there was an impressive colony of Pheidole (pictured below) that was nesting between the cracks of the stone river bank, spewing forth hordes of minors and majors while victorious huntresses filed back with all manner of arthropods wriggling between their mandibles. The sheer numbers and vigorous activity of the species reminded me again of the absence of true army ants, and the gaping ecological niche that a particularly enterprising species might get a piece of.
Pheidole sp.
Pheidole sp.
I went barefoot through the jungle for the last day of the trek out. The occasional sharp root or twig or leaf was preferable to the sensation of socks rubbing against the exposed under-layers of raw skin. Walking barefoot through the jungle is usually not the most advisable undertaking, but in the Solomons one at least has the comfort of knowing that no poisonous snakes lurk coiled by the trail. The going was rough, but we made it to the river in time to catch the canoe down to the mouth, in time to catch the truck back to the sleepy town of Kirakira.
Of all the stones we turned over, of all the logs we hacked to bits, of all the forest litter we methodically sifted, we ended up with one solitary single worker of the Solomons’ Lordomyrma. The little ant now rests safe and sound in an insect drawer, its DNA having been digested and digitized. I’m fairly certain that if I hadn’t gone barefoot that last day, the jungle would not have granted me that true token of reward. Getting the good things in life takes a little sacrifice.
Bye!
Bye!

Anting the Solomons, Part II

…By the time we reached the the top of the mountain, Wasmannia had disappeared from the old growth forest and the native fauna appeared to us as it must have appeared to W. M. Mann the century before. Yet what the forest gave to us in specimen rewards, it took from us in bodily harm. The second day forced us across the river six times before we could begin our ascent up the mountain. Even if we hadn’t crossed so many times, the constant deluge would have left us just as soaked. Rain coated the steep mud trail with a frictionless layer of slip, causing Evan, Jon and I to perform a fine stooge routine as we fell one after the other in complex patterns of synchronicity. We are ants climbing a fluon-rimmed tub I meditated, searching for in vain for clean spot of pant leg upon which to rub muddy hands.
A small highland village between Hauta and Marone
A small highland village between Hauta and Marone
The local fellows did the entire hike with hands holding our bags and 20 kilo bags of rice — their feet bare of shoes —  just as we might stroll down a neighborhood street. What for us was a will-bending, bottom-bruising, eight hour struggle was literally the two hour walk home from school for the village children. All the houses built atop the mountain were constructed from forest materials or hiked up 800 meters on the backs of men and women.
A typical wooden house in Marone village. All building suplies must be brought in by hand over a treacherous 800 meter ascent.
A typical wooden house in Marone village. All building suplies must be brought in by hand over a treacherous 800 meter ascent.
The mud, humiliation and bruises were well worth the fine hauls of ants our party was bringing in. Although I kept one eye out for small dark myrmicines that smelled like Lordomyrma, the bread and butter of this expedition was  Malaise trapping and Winkler sifting. Malaise trapping involves pitching tent of insect fabric specially designed to funnel intercepted insects into a collecting bottle at the apex of the roof, and then down into a puddle of 95% liquid doom. Malaise traps are an excellent way to passively collect the arboreal ant fauna without having to climb trees. It’s kind of like sticking your fishing pole between a couple of rocks and putting it on autopilot while you knock off for a few beers.
Setting up a Malaise trap with Jon Fassi.
Setting up a Malaise trap with Jon Fassi.
Only, we didn’t have any beers. What we did have were Winklers (or “winkles” to use a term of more intimate endearment). What Malaise traps are to arboreal ants, winkles are to ground dwelling ants. The idea here is to chop up a square meter of forest litter with a good sharp nasty looking bush knife, prey there are no Odontomachus down there, then toss the goods into a tied off bag with a section of 1/4″ screen in the middle.
You shake the dickens out of the rotting leaves and humus and downed twigs until your arms hurt, admire the ounce of particulate matter collected at the bottom of your bag, think about how many eye-popping arthropods are scrambling about down there, then convince your field assistant its his turn to do the next shake. Back at camp you fill up mesh bags with the sifted litter, hang those in an extracting bag, and watch as ant after ant crawls out the mesh and lands in a puddle of 95% doom.
Evan preparing Winkler extractions.
Evan preparing Winkler extractions.
There are a couple dangers of winklin’ in the rain. The first is that all the ants stick to the mud. The second is that the big nasty sharp bush knife gets slippery and the blade occasionally slices through your sock and opens up your shin. When your local guide roots around the jungle for a certain vine and squeezes the milk out into your wound, that’s when you just have to pray he knows what he’s doing. Not that ANYTHING like that happened on this expedition, though…

Anting the Solomon Islands, Part I

High adventure is both the blessing and the curse for the intrepid collector of ants. The tropical rainforests of Melanesia are a veritable Shangri La for those in quest of ants never before scoped at 40x magnification, but to reach that promised land of riches… one must be prepared to sacrifice.

It feels as if someone took a twisted rusty blade and skinned the soles of my feet. The day before I disobeyed the golden rule of hiking and went in wet and dirty socks. The little grits wore though the soggy softened skin of my feet and left a thousand stinging sores. Time is running out to find the Lordomyrma I so desparately need. Earlier in the morning, on the first leg down from the remote interior village of Marone, I put these ruined feet through dreadful paces, forcing myself into a desperate frenzy, going up and down the stream banks, overturning every stone I could find in search of the little beasts and paying no heed to my body’s deteriorating condition.

When I reached the village of Hauta, I climbed onto the porch and took off my wet shoes and socks to assess the damage. Gross. Oozing pustules of raw flesh pockmarked at the fringes and joined together in mass wounds at the trouble spots. Flies started flocking to my feet like carrion. Evan reminds me that this is what the Vietnam vets must mean when they talk about “jungle rot.”

I ask Joseph what they did for this kind of wound. He says, “lemon juice.” Lemon juice? I nod and Joseph disappears into the forest, coming back a few minutes later with a lemon plucked from a garden tree. Stuffing a bandanna between my teeth to keep from biting off my tongue I signal that I am ready. Carefully, Joseph winds a cotton batten around a stick and soaks it in the Mini Mouse cup of lemon juice. He gives me a last look as if to say he is sorry, then applies the saturated swab of mouth puckering liquid to my raw, open wounds.

Wow, that REALLLLY bleepin burns.

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Joseph Waihuru applying a cotten swab soaked in lemon juice to the stumps of agony previously known as Eli's feet.

I had arrived at Makira Island a few days earlier with my expedition partner, Evan Economo from UT Austin, glad to have escaped the grime and crime of Honiara. We had busied ourselves chewing Betelnut and marauding the nearby forest for some of the wonderful ants collected a century earlier by W. M. Mann. The pickings had slimmed considerably since Mann’s jaunt. Wasmannia auropunctata, the Little Fire Ant, had gotten to the island before us, and had lain waste to the livliehoods of the native ants, and the native people.

The Solomon Islanders are for the most part, subsistence farmers. Wasmannia is wreaking havok on their gardens. Many farmers have quit recently, and those who haven’t are harvesting at night when the ants are least active. Still, they pour down from the trees and leaves, bombarding the farmers with scores of painful stings. Wasmannia auropunctata is the scourge of the Pacific. It nests in every habitat imaginable, devours the arthropod biomass, suppresses the native species, and makes a misery of the lives of villagers who have no choice but to share their beds, clothes and meals with them.

A nest of the Little Fire Ant (Wasmannia auropunctata) from Makira Island.
A nest of the Little Fire Ant (Wasmannia auropunctata) from Makira Island.

The ant diversity is noticeably depressed in the lowland forests where reigns Wasmannia, but there are a few native species that managed to persist. One of the more interesting finds was made by Evan, who captured a small colony of Rogeria stigmatica nesting in a downed branch. This species has an absolutely spectacular defense that we observed firsthand, but I’ll refrain from posting the action shots until the account is properly published!

Rogeria stigmatica nesting in a downed branch
Cute little furry Rogeria stigmatica nesting in a downed branch. Don't get these gals upset, though, lest they declare war and unsheath their secret weapons!

Anxious to leave Wasmannia habitat behind, Evan I plotted an expedition up to the higher elevations of interior. The ants are always better just a little higher up the mountain, right? Our local host, John Fassi, helped arrange for guides and porters to take us 800 meters up to the village of Marone. Armed with a few pair of dry socks, bush knives, pooters and winklers we began our march to the first village on the track, Nara.

Expedition party
Expedition party on the way to Nara. Jon Fassi (USP student) in the blue polo shirt. JosephWaihuru with the hair and the goatee to the right of Jon. Evan Economo in (green shirt) & me (yellow shirt) in the "tropically challenged" skin. The rest are porters and Jon's hapless field assistants.

I remember the last time my feet were dry. It was before crossing the Evo river. Fortunately, our savvy guides took our bags from Evan, Jon and I, so all we had to do was keep our balance and not get swept away. The first half of the crossing was okay, but the current started picking up as the channel deepened, and soon enough I was swimming flat out for the other side — all the while getting swept downstream.

Guides and porters ferrying our gear across the Evo River
Joseph and porters ferrying our gear across the Evo River. I should have asked them to carry me, too.

I had all but given up when I heard Evan scream that he found Lordomyrma epinotalis — the fabled ant that, if I could only get a fresh specimen for the phylogeny, was to be the lynchpin of my grand theory of Melanesian biogeography! I renewed my strokes with determined vigor, grabbed a tree root with one hand, a porter’s arm with another, and was hoisted onto dry land. No, no, no! It was not the Lordomyrma. Anguish! Despair! One pair of socks was soaked, but there were two fresh pairs remaining, and a full week to catch my quarry.

And so we marched on, every step in those soaking shoes wearing down the skin just a little bit more…