The Ant and the Caterpillar
On a recent trip to the Kenyan coast I was wandering down a path and noticed a bright purple blob ambling along beside me. I looked down and admired the plump, brightly coloured caterpillar wondering what butterfly or moth it might eventually turn into.
As I watched it making its way down the path, I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye. I was not the only one who had spotted the caterpillar.
A large Stink Ant, a common predator of the coastal forests, was also making its way towards the caterpillar. The ant appraised the caterpillar briefly before running up and grabbing it with its large, sharp and serrated mandibles. The caterpillar twitched back and forth, but could not free itself. Now the Stink Ant curved her abdomen forward and delivered a powerful sting to the caterpillar.
The hapless caterpillar continued to struggle while the Stink Ant clung on tenaciously with its powerful jaws.
As the caterpillar tried to free itself, another tiny ant ran up briefly to the pair engaged in battle. It drummed its antennae against the caterpillar then, likely sensing the presence of the other larger Stink Ant, ran away as fast as its little legs could carry it! It looked like the smaller ant was fleeing, but little did any of us; caterpillar, Stink Ant or yours truly know what was in store…
The Stink Ant and the caterpillar continued to battle on. At one point the caterpillar tried twisting around to grab hold of its tormentor. However, the clever Stink Ant clung on with its jaws, while carefully holding its legs back so that the caterpillar could not get a hold. The caterpillar’s small weak jaws were no match for the ants’ jaws and venom anyway.
After what seemed like an eternity of twenty-seven minutes, the caterpillar began to weaken. No doubt the venom delivered by the Stink Ant’s powerful sting was beginning to take effect. The caterpillar acquiesced to its fate and allowed the Stink Ant to drag it down the path deeper into the forest.
At this point, my camera battery ran flat. I rushed back to the house flailing about for a spare battery. I quickly changed it and rushed back to down the path to where I had left the caterpillar and the Stink Ant.
For a moment, I couldn’t find them and my heart sank. I so wanted to see the battle through to its end. Then I noticed a frenetic struggle going on at the edge of the path. On closer inspection, it proved to the be the same caterpillar now being devoured by hundreds of Big-Headed Ants!
The tiny ant who had visited the battling pair earlier on was no shy wanderer. It was a sneaky spy! That little ant was a foraging scout, sent out by the colony in search of potential food. She had summoned her sisters and here they were now carting off the caterpillar! The Big Headed ants have several worker castes, as you can see from the picture, including ones with massive heads and jaws. These individuals with extra-large heads and jaws are known as ‘majors’.
As I wondered what had happened to the Stink Ant, who had worked so hard for her supper, I noticed another pile of Big Headed ants battling away a couple of feet from me. On closer inspection it turned out to be the Stink Ant being devoured herself!
As I noticed this several of the Big Headed ants had by now found their way up my sandals onto my feet. As one of the ‘majors’ sank its jaws into my skin I leapt back, brushed them off and made my way down the path appreciating the fact that nature is truly ‘red in tooth and claw’!