Monday, October 27, 2008

The most vicious creatures in the Mara smaller than your fingernail

Siafu. A simple word for ants that can strike fear into the heart of people that have spent time living in the bush. It means you need to be careful where you walk and sleep.

These tiny creatures can appear overnight by the thousands. Within a few hours of arrival they have usually worn an unmistakable path on the ground. Carelessly step on their path and you will have ants in your pants and ouch coming out of your mouth in seconds. Most of the safari ants are small workers, but a small proportion are soldiers. These soldiers are easily distinguished by their large size and huge jaws. The soldiers are intimidating ,but don't discount the bite from a worker. Both types will patiently crawl up you leg, looking for a sensitive place to chomp. When the army has reached a good place, one of the ants will make the first bite and send the signal to attack. If you were to visit Fisi Camp and see one of the researchers running around without their pants on, it is not some strange game we play because we have gone bush crazy, it is probably because we are under siege from siafu.

Despite the affinity of these little creatures for biting me, I find them most interesting and love watching them go about their business. I have found as long as you don't disrupt their path, they will leave you alone most of the time. A few bites here and there are worth the price of admission as far as I am concerned. The shear numbers they arrive in and the coordination among the castes are astounding. Along the paths they wear on the ground, soldiers will line the edges and at times even lock together to form a canopy. The path may disappear underground and then pop up again a few meters later. Recently, there were large ant chains hanging off a bucket in a tree. In some places the ants were so dense the bucket was not visible.

My brief description here does not do these fascinating eusocial insects justice. Nor does it properly relay the terror felt by some of the inhabitants at Fisi Camp. "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver does an excellent job of laying out the worst case scenario of an ant invasion. Of course, the book is fiction, but nevertheless, an interesting story of a scene we hope never occurs in Fisi Camp.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Those are some great photos Andy.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science