Paraponera clavata
The Bullet Ant


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Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Formicidae
Genus: Paraponera- The bullet ant is the only known living species within this genus


Geographic Range/Abundance:
The bullet ant is a unique species found throughout Central and South America with a range from Nicaragua to the Amazon basin.

Habitat:
The bullet ant is found in Atlantic coastal lowland rainforests in both primary and secondary forest growth. It is the third most abundant ant out of fifty-two canopy-dwelling species in neotropical forests. In Costa Rica, the ant can be found at elevations up to 500 meters.
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Coloration and Morphology:
The bullet ant has a large body size ranging from 2.5 centimeters to 1 inch in length. They are usually a reddish/brown color and can be described as wingless wasps.

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An active bullet ant nest at La Selva

Ecology/Diet:
Bullet ant nests consist of roughly 40 tunnels and chambers ranging from 7-62 cm with one entrance. Rooms at the ends of the tunnels are brood chambers where the larvae are hatched. The colonies contain hundreds of ants and are often found in the soil under and around a tree, which serves as a buffer for protection. Nests also sometimes occupy arboreal cavities, and although mostly shaded, some nests receive a high amount of direct sunlight. The ants utilize trees of several species for nest sites including Ceiba pentandra and Pentaclethra macroloba. This location provides the ants with a close proximity to food sources and convenient access to the canopy for foraging. Workers leave the nest in search of nectar, honeydew, sap, and water and return with the liquid in their mandibles. With its ability to provide nectar at extrafloral nectaries, the bullet ant forms a mutualistic relationship with P. macroloba, in which the ants guard the nectaries and in return receive protection and a food source. While adult ants feed solely on nectar, juveniles are fed animal matter consisting of invertebrates, such as termites, and other small animals. They are even known to prey on wasp nests. Larger materials are cut up, while smaller ones are carried in whole pieces. Foraging and recruitment is associated with weather and can occur diurnally. Experienced workers rely on landmarks and pheromone trails to gain other recruits. Natural enemies of the ant include parasitoid Phorid flies and an entomaphothic fungus.

Workers are often the largest of the colony and serve to protect the nest and forage for food. The smaller ants remain in the nest as nursemaids. Queens are only slightly larger than the workers and are single mated in established colonies. New colonies are started by lone queens.


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The fascinating mandibles of the bullet ant
Behavior:
These ants build a highly sophisticated underground society. Interestingly, colonies often have "ant jails" where adult police ants force juveniles to learn the proper ant etiquette. In addition, future workers must learn to properly carry the delicate liquid droplets in their mandibles in order not to burst the surface tension.

The bullet ant is most commonly known for its severe sting, which is said to be equivalent to being shot. Local tribes often refer to the ant as "Hormiga Venticuatro" or 24-hour ant because the pain from the sting is said to last 24 hours. Although not the most dangerous, it is the most painful sting by any invertebrate and rates the highest on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which describes the sting as being equivalent to "fire-walking over charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel." They are considered non-aggressive unless protecting themselves or their nest. If an intruder disturbs the nest, workers react by coming out and releasing a musky odor and a warning screech before swarming the invader. When the ant stings it injects a neurotoxic venom, poneratoxin, which blocks the central nervous system in arthropods and causes extreme pain in mammals. Even juveniles can Along with pain, effects of the sting include paralysis, uncontrollable drooling, nausea, perspiration,fever, and trembling. They actually bite too mainly just to induce a little extra pain. It is believed that the ant evolved such a painful sting to ward of predators from its ancestor, the wasp.


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A bullet ant on the prowl at La Selva
A tribe in Brazil known as the Satere-Mawe perform an intense initiation ritual involving hundreds of bullet ants. FIrst, the ants are collected and drugged by the tribe's medicine man. Once unconscious, theya re woven into gloves made out of leaves with stingers facing inward. Once the angry ants awake, the young men must stick their hands into the gloves for a total of ten minutes. Once the ritual is over, their hands swell up to three times their normal size and turn black. The venom enters the muscles and the body undergoes a series of uncontrollable spams. Interestingly, it is only after twenty times of completing the ritual that the young man is finally considered a warrior.

Other tribes use bullet ants for medical use. For example, the mandibles are often placed over open wounds to seal the wound tightly with the ant's saliva. The ant can also be used to treat rheumatism.

Observations at La Selva:
Bullet ants were fairly common at La Selva. When seen, they were often solitary or in pairs either on the trail or on the trees. Our guide, Fernando, was unfortunately stung by one. When asked what the effects were, he just emphasized how painful it was and how he suffered for hours. I only saw one active bullet ant nest. Fernando could not identify the kind of tree it was associated with because the leaves were too far up. They were a lot bigger than I expected. Fernando said the average ones were about one inch in length and they can grow even bigger.


An incredible passage rite of the Satare-Mawe tribe of Brazil involving hundreds of Bullet Ants

References:

http://www.sasionline.org/antsfiles/pages/bullet/bulletbio.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paraponera

http://www.stlzoo.org/animals/abouttheanimals/invertebrates/insects/antsbeeswasps/bulletant.htm

http://www.vincelewis.net/ant.html

http://www.jstor.org/pss/2388226