Unusual Birds for Unusual Times

Male Frigatebird in breeding, Seymour Island, Galapagos

During this homebound time, here are some of my favorite unusual-looking birds from around the world.

 

There are so many lovely creatures in this world, each one unique in its own way. But some are especially different-looking; for today I narrowed it down to 12 birds.

 

Bird #1. Male Frigatebird in breeding (above). We worked and saved for two years to see this sight. This exquisite seabird comes to land only to breed, we were determined to observe his remarkable display; journeyed to a remote island in the Galapagos.

 

The male’s pouch inflates and deflates. He spends a lot of energy to inflate his red gular (throat) pouch to attract females. Once it is inflated, he pounds on the balloon-like body part with his wings; makes booming sounds and vocalizations.

 

After the male has found his damsel, the pouch deflates and the business of preparing for the new chick begins.

 

Bird #2. Nothern Potoo. A nocturnal bird, they perch on the end of sticks, flying out to catch insects and returning to their perch.  Nyctibius jamaicensis blends into the perch, rendering it nearly impossible to spot.

 

Our guide took us in a small motorboat to a Mexican marsh.

Northern Potoo, Mexico

 

There are over 300 different hummingbird species in the world. Many of us have seen hummingbirds or photos of them, yet I found the two following hummingbirds particularly unique-looking.

 

Bird #3. Tufted Coquette. With that punk orange hairstyle, polka-dotted wings and iridescence, its not like any hummingbird I’ve ever seen…and I’ve seen a lot. We spotted him deep in a Trinidad rainforest.

Tufted coquette, male, Trinidad

 

Bird #4. Another memorable hummingbird is the snowcap. Microchera albocoronata is in a genus all its own. They are tiny birds, the male is reddish purple with a bright white cap. Even beneath the dark canopy of the Costa Rican rainforest, that snowy white cap could be spotted fairly easily.

Snowcap Hummingbird, Costa Rica

 

Bird #5. The Resplendent Quetzal. The male has long tail streamers, and the female has the same exquisite colors as the male, sans tail streamers. They eat avocadoes, so a guide took us to a wild avocado grove in the Chiriquí Highlands of Costa Rica.

 

Avocadoes that are not bred for human consumption are small, apricot-sized. These gorgeous birds were elegantly shimmering and fluttering from one tree to the next. They were not-so-elegantly eating: swallowing the avocado whole, then spitting out the pit. I vote this the most beautiful bird I have ever seen.

Resplendent Quetzal, male, Costa Rica

 

Bird #6. Cock-of-the-Rock. One of the strangest birds I have ever seen. We waited in the morning dark, in an Andes lek where males gather to perform courtship dances for the female. This bright orange male struts, bobs and hops while vocalizing a cacophony of staccato sounds. That morning there were five or six males vying for one female; she flew off solo after the show.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Peru. Photo: B. Page

 

Before we leave the western hemisphere, I want to show you a lovable strange bird who inhabits the deserts in southwestern and south-central United States. We saw it in southern California.

 

Bird #7. The Roadrunner. Clocked at 20 miles an hour (32 km/h), this bird is speedy. This creature was the star and namesake of the old Warner Brothers cartoons, the Road Runner Show. There’s a reason Wile E. Coyote never caught the roadrunner….

Roadrunner, California. Photo: Athena Alexander

Sporting a long tail and perky crest, Geococcyx californianus hunts lizards and snakes. You see them sprinting more than flying, though they can fly.

 

The other side of the world is also loaded with unusual-looking birds. Here are a few we found in Africa and Australia.

 

Bird #8. The hamerkop is a wading bird, found in Africa, and is most closely related to pelicans. The color is unremarkable brown, but the shape of the head is highly conspicuous, appearing to look like a hammer. Its name means “hammerhead” in Afrikaans.

Hamerkop, Zambia, Africa

 

Bird #9. The secretary bird is a long-legged raptor. The lower half of the legs are featherless, the crest has quill-like feathers.  Sagittarius serpentarius stomps prey with its muscular legs, and uses the large, hooked eagle-like bill to strike.

Secretary Bird, Africa. Photo Athena Alexander

 

Bird #10. Far less ferocious are the African hornbills. There are several species of hornbills, this one is the red-billed. Their conspicuous bill gives them a distinguished, albeit odd, appearance.

Red-billed Hornbill pair, Zambia

 

Bird #11. Vulturine Guineafowl in Africa. In a land of vast savannahs, guineafowl are large, gregarious birds who eat insects and seeds in the grasses. You often see large flocks of them pecking the ground, like chickens. The Vulturine species, Acryllium vulturinum, has elegant markings.

Vulturine Guineafowl, Kenya, Africa

 

Bird #12. By far the oddest bird of all, the Southern Cassowary has a large casque atop its head, large bristly black body, long legs and neck, bright colors, and two dangling red wattles at the throat. We were birding deep in the rainforest in Queensland with a guide when we unknowingly came close to a cassowary’s nest. We had accidentally agitated the male.

Southern Cassowary, Australia

As big as humans, a cassowary has a large spike on its foot and can land a fatal blow to anyone in his way. We didn’t have long to chat with him.

 

Of course there are many more unusual birds in this world, as well as insects, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals.

 

As we all go through this unusual mammalian pandemic, try to remember that the world is full of odd animals.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Two Runners-Up:

Crested Guans, Costa Rica

 

Emu, Mareeba Wetlands, Australia

 

Jet (L) and Athena on Galapagos. Trees with breeding frigatebird colony in background.

 

 

Sloths

Two-toed sloth, Costa Rica. Photo: Athena Alexander

It’s times like these, when the world is swirling, that I look to my slow-moving wildlife friends to help me slow down, get grounded. Let’s take a look at the world’s slowest mammal: the sloth.

 

Lethargic and sedentary, sloths can be found in the tropical rainforests of South and Central America. We had the thrill of seeing a few individuals in Costa Rica.

 

Wild Bromeliads, Costa Rica Rainforest. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

With a name that means “laziness,” sloths have very slow metabolism and are motionless 90% of the time.

 

About the size of a medium dog, a sloth is difficult to spot in the rainforest because they are deeply hidden in tree canopies, and usually high up.

 

Rainforest. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

They move so slow that algae grows in their fur. The algae helps them blend into the foliage. In addition to the algae, the fur has an ecosystem of arthropods–moths, beetles, mites, and more.

 

Vulnerable in their sluggishness, this arboreal mammal stays hidden in the treetop to avoid predators. With a typical life span of 12 years, some sloths are born, live, and die in the same tree.

 

Equipped with claws for hands and feet, sloths hang upside down in trees. They cannot walk, so they drag themselves along the ground, if necessary. Several locals told us they saw sloths using telephone lines to move about, when there were no trees.

 

With poor vision and poor hearing, sloths rely on smell and touch to find food.

 

There are two extant families of sloths:  the two-toed and three-toed. Both are photographed here. But this title is misleading, because all sloths have three toes, even the ones named two-toed…and they’re not toes, they’re claws.

 

The two-toed sloths eat fruit, leaves, insects and small lizards; three-toed sloths are herbivorous, eat leaves and buds.

 

Wikipedia Sloth

 

When we travelled to Costa Rica, we hoped to see many natural beauties, but the sloth was top on our list. We asked many people where we might see a wild sloth, including the cab driver who met us at the airport.

 

En route to our destination, the cab driver proudly stopped in a park in a very small town and took us directly to The Tree.

 

Because the sloth rarely moves, the cab driver knew exactly the tree and limb on which to find the sloth.

 

It looked liked a hairy wasp nest. It was motionless, and impossible to recognize. Taking a photograph was pointless. But still, it was a thrill.

 

A week later, we were in a Costa Rican rainforest with a guide. He, too, knew exactly where to take us to see the sloths.

 

It was hot, sticky, and buggy, and there was much going on in this active rainforest. Birds were flitting, toucans were squawking, monkeys were shrieking, and butterflies fluttered around us.

 

The sloths were conked out, deep in sleep.

 

Over one hundred feet (30m) up, and hidden in a tangle of leaves and vines, there was one sloth. In a different tree farther away, was another.

 

Binoculars and camera at the ready, we stood there craning our necks for over a half hour, waiting for a moment when the sloth would move. We were ready for a twitch, a wink, an opening eyelid, anything.

 

Eventually the three-toed sloth opened one eye halfway, for a moment. It was marvelous. Athena caught the moment (below).

Three-toed sloth, Costa Rica. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

Notice the green tint in the arm covering the face…that’s algae.

 

About once a week they make their way down the tree to go to the bathroom. They urinate, defecate, bury it, and climb back up.

 

Crazy as it sounds, I sure would like to see that.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photographs by Athena Alexander.

Green Violetear Hummingbird, Costa Rica. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

Welcoming 2020

Giant Eagle Owl, aka Verreaux’s Owl, Botswana, Africa

As we step forward into a fresh new year, and decade, here are some wise words from a few of my wild friends.

 

Greet each day with a smile.

Crocodile, Kakadu Nat’l. Park, Australia

 

Enjoy the search for life’s nectar.

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Belize

 

Wear your true colors …

Yellow Tangs, Big Island, Hawaii

but on crabby days, lay low.

Sally Lightfoot Crab, Galapagos Islands

 

Eat good foods …

House Finch, Gold Dusk Gecko Eating Papaya, Hawaii

and drink plenty of water.

Young African Elephant Drinking Water, Botswana, Africa

 

Share the resources.

Bighorn Sheep and Moose at pond, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado

 

Wildlife, who have to physically work for every bite, like to remind us humans of the importance of movement. They tell us to …

Exercise …

Sable, Botswana, Africa

and stretch.

Leopard, Tanzania, Africa

 

I’ve watched plenty of wildlife simply having fun, especially ravens.

Common Raven, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

Wildlife remind us to:

Hang out with our mates …

Grey-headed Flying Fox colony, Sydney, Australia

and cherish our loved ones.

Baird’s Tapir, juvenile and mother, Belize

 

Try to get along with everyone …

Hippo with heron, Zambia, Luangwa Valley, Africa

but when it’s not possible, take leave.

Humpback Whale, Kenai, Alaska

And because we are granted many days in each new year, there are bound to be some bad days too. The wisdom there is:

When life gives you dung, be a dung beetle.

Dung Beetle, Serengeti, Kenya, Africa

 

It’s good to be industrious …

Leafcutter Ant with leaf spear, Belize

but don’t forget to take time to perch …

Keel-billed Toucan, Belize

and relax.

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

 

Never stop singing …

Dickcissel, Texas

and just keep hopping.

Grey Kangaroos, Australia

 

Wishing you the best in 2020, my friends. Thanks for sharing the sparks of 2019 with me.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Blue Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Kenya, Africa

 

Lizard Land — Part 2 of 2

Green Iguana, Belize, native

 

Last week in Part 1 of this series we looked at lizards’ antipredator adaptations, camouflage, and size. Today we look at their skin, and various ways they move, sense, and communicate.

 

For starters, they are gloriously prehistoric. When you watch a lizard, especially the way it moves, it’s almost as if you are watching a dinosaur. The evolution of reptiles dates back 310-320 million years; more info here. 

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

 

Blue-tongued Lizard pair, entwined, Sydney, Australia

 

Spiny-tailed Lizard, Ambergris Caye, Belize

 

Skin. Lizard skin is covered with overlapping scales made of keratin, providing protection from the environment. Scales also help prevent water loss, especially important in hot, dry deserts.

 

This photo shows the textured scales.

Western Fence Lizard, California

 

Tough and leathery, lizard skin is shed as the animal grows; they usually eat it for the minerals.

 

Locomotion.  Lizards live on the ground, in trees, rocks, underground, and even water. Therefore, they move in many different ways.

 

Although there are some legless lizards, most lizards are quadrupedal. Their gait has alternating movement of the right and left limbs, requiring the body to bend–shown in this photo of the Nile monitor.

 

Nile Monitor, Botswana, Africa

 

One of my favorite lizards for their movement is the common basilisk. When alarmed, basilisks rear up on their two hind legs and skitter across the water, earning them the name Jesus Christ Lizard. I’ve seen them run bipedally on the ground as well.

 

This photo demonstrates the basilisk’s muscular hind legs, necessary for bipedal locomotion.

 

Basilisk Lizard, Belize

 

Many species of lizards can effortlessly leap two and three times their body length. Lizards with short legs, like the skink, undulate like a snake.

 

Skink, California

 

Some lizards are extremely fast, while others, especially larger ones, are more languid. In addition, how much sun they have stored in their body is directly relational to speed.

 

The black spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaurus similis) is known as the fastest lizard, clocked at 21 mph (34 kph).

 

Black Spiny-tailed Iguana, Ambergris Caye, Belize

 

Geckos get the prize for hanging upside down. Their adhesive toe pads allow them to adhere to most surfaces.

 

The Asian House Gecko has the broadest distribution of any lizard in the world.

 

Asian House Gecko on the ceiling, Kakadu NP, Australia

 

Senses. With over 6,000 species of lizards, there are many variations of how lizards sense their environment–here are a few notable ways.

 

Eyes. Many lizard species, especially iguanas, have a parietal eye, a third eye, on the back of their head. It is photoreceptive and regulates circadian rhythm and hormone production for thermoregulation. Although it does not form images, it is sensitive to light and movement, helpful for detecting predators. The eye is difficult for us to see.

 

A chameleon can steer each eye in opposite directions. Geckos do not have eyelids, so they lick their eyes to keep them clean and moist. Geckos, like monitors, have acute vision.

 

Ears. Instead of external ears, lizards have ear holes or openings. The eardrums, or tympanic membranes, are just below the surface of the skin. These two close-ups clearly show the “ears.”

 

Dragon Lizard, Australia. Ear hole is reddish-brown circle below and left of eye.

 

 

This frill-necked lizard’s ear opening is just right of center photo, in an almost straight line below the eye. Australia.

 

Nose. All lizards, like snakes, have a specialized olfactory system for detecting pheromones or chemical signals. They have a vomeronasal organ (VNO), located in the soft tissue of the nasal septum. When you see a lizard sticking out its forked tongue, as in the photo below, what you are witnessing is the transferring of scent information from the tip of its forked tongue to the VNO.

 

Golden Tegu Lizard with forked tongue out, Trinidad

 

Mouth. Most lizards are predatory and hunt small invertebrates and/or insects. We have lizards to thank for keeping the insect population in check.

 

This western fence lizard had a fruitful day in my backyard. As winged nuptial ants were streaming from a rock fissure, he gorged for at least an hour.

 

Western Fence Lizard, California, eating nuptial ants. Notice all the dead winged ants he hasn’t yet had the chance to consume.

 

Here in California we are lucky to have the western fence lizard, because ticks that feed on this lizard do not spread Lyme disease. This lizard’s blood kills off the Lyme bacteria.

 

The marine iguana, found only in the Galapagos Islands, forages on algae, kelp and other marine plants. They will dive up to 98 feet (30 m), and can stay submerged for an hour.

 

While underwater, marine iguanas ingest salt. The salt is filtered from the blood and then nasally excreted. We saw many of them squirt salt out their nostrils.

 

This photo shows the marine iguana’s lovable face encrusted with algae (green) and dried salt (white) on it.

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

 

As squamates, lizards have movable upper jaws, and some lizards, like the green iguana, have very sharp teeth capable of shredding leaves and even human skin. All lizards have teeth, dentition varies.

 

Communication. Lizards make sounds for courtship, territorial defense, and distress signals. Geckos are the most loquacious lizards, with chirps and squeaks that can be surprisingly loud. Sometimes you’ll hear a lizard hiss, a warning.

 

Other forms of communication include:  various body postures like push-ups and head-bobs, as well as the expansion of the dewlap. Tail-flicking is common in territorial disputes.

 

We found this dapper anole with a bright orange dewlap in a Texas swamp.

 

Green anole, Texas

 

This green iguana below, near a river in Costa Rica where it is native, was nearly five feet long (1.5 m) including the tail. An arboreal lizard, they hunt and bask in the trees and can easily break a fall with their hind legs.

 

This photo shows his crescent-shaped, uninflated dewlap under the neck. Dewlaps are muscle-controlled, and help regulate body temperature; also used in courtship and territorial displays.

 

Green Iguana, Costa Rica

 

Leaping Lizards Batman! They are the coolest animal on this planet!

Thanks for joining me in Lizard Land.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild, by Athena Alexander.

 

Great Basin Fence Lizard, Great Basin NP, Nevada

 

Lizard Land — Part 1 of 2

Land Iguana, Galapagos Islands

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

Lizards are one of the most diverse and remarkable creatures on this planet; there are 6,000 species living on all the continents except Antarctica. Here are some of my favorites in this two-part series.

 

Although most lizards may seem vulnerable as fairly small, soft-sided creatures, they are hearty and flourishing survivors.

 

It is their antipredator adaptations that have rewarded lizards with success on the planet. Features such as camouflage, self-amputation, venom, and reflex bleeding aid these reptiles in numerous ways.

 

Camouflage. In the Hawaiian tropics, this gecko surprisingly blends into the lush tropical flowers and greenery. We were lucky to find this one on our rental car where it stood out.

 

Gold Dust Day Gecko, Hawaii

 

Here you see the Lobed Chameleon in Serengeti grass…barely noticeable in its camouflaged state. Imagine how many ferocious wild African species could eat this palm-sized chameleon…yet in Tanzania alone there are 100 species of chameleons.

Lobed Chameleon, Serengeti, Africa (in exact center of photo)

 

The chameleon, like many lizard species, changes color to hide from predators. They also have the ability to extend their long, sticky tongue to snap up insects without having to leave their hiding spot.

 

This frisky pair of spiny-tailed iguanas would have escaped our notice if they hadn’t been rustling in their chasing.

 

Spiny-tailed Iguana pair, Belize

 

We found a frill-necked lizard on every tree in this northern Australia eucalyptus forest. Invisible to us at first, the guide pointed them out.

Frill-necked Lizard, Atherton Tablelands, Australia

In addition to camouflaging, the frill-necked lizards have a unique scare tactic. Named for the ruff of skin around their neck, frill-necked lizards can expand their neck skin like the instant opening of an umbrella. They have bones in the frill that form rods extending their ruff, quickly transforming them to be bigger and more fierce.

 

This is a good BBC YouTube video of what the frill-necked lizard looks like when defending. 

 

Self-amputation. Another example of anti-predator adaptation is autotomy or self-amputation. Skinks and small lizards are known for their ability to escape from a predator by this method.

 

If a predator grabs onto their tail, they sacrifice it by ejecting it, and escape, leaving the predator with only a still-squiggling tail. Miraculously, they grow the tail back. It has been found that lizard DNA is responsible for regeneration, involving 326 genes.

 

You can see this lizard with its battle scars: a segmented tail, indicative of regrowth.

Green Anole, Costa Rica; segmented tail indicating regeneration

 

Venom. While most lizards are not harmful, there are a few who produce venom, like the Gila monster, Komodo dragon, and some monitors. Lizard venom has led to ongoing scientific research for medicinal drugs to help with blood clotting, weight loss, and diabetes.

 

Reflex Bleeding. Horned lizards have an antipredator adaptation called reflex bleeding. At least eight species of this lizard can squirt and aim a stream of blood from the corner of their eyes, shooting it a distance of up to five feet (1.5 m). The blood confuses the predator, and is also foul-tasting to dogs and cats.

 

Another extraordinary lizard characteristic is thermoregulation. As cold-blooded animals, they rely on the sun for supplying energy to move and function. For this reason, lizards can often be seen basking in the sun.

 

Marine Iguana colony, Galapagos Islands

 

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

 

Lastly, lizards vary incredibly in size and shape. This land iguana is one of the largest lizards in the world, weighing up to 25 pounds (11 kg) and measuring 3-5 feet long (0.9-1.5 m).

Land Iguana, Galapagos Islands

 

In contrast, this full adult gecko, aptly named the dwarf gecko, is half as big as a paperclip.

Dwarf Gecko, Belize

 

And finally, as an aficionado of wild lizards, I ask that if you ever seek to purchase a lizard for a pet, please be responsible in purchasing only lizards that are bred in captivity and legally bought and sold. Help keep our wild lizards wild.

 

Solar-generated animals that can change colors, regrow their tail, magically blend into their surroundings, and shoot blood. How incredible is that?

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild, by Athena Alexander.

See you next Friday for Part 2 of Lizard Land. Thanks for joining me!

Western Fence Lizard, California

 

Two Night Drives

Black and White Owl, Belize

It was the same territory we had traversed every day in this Belizean rainforest, but a very different world opened up once the jungle night unfolded.

 

Night drives involve a vehicle with a strong spotlight hooked up to the battery, and one or two guides who drive and spot. Athena and I stood in the back of a pick-up truck–hanging on, dodging palm fronds, and swatting at mosquitoes.

 

Baird’s Tapir, adult female, Belize

Tapirs were a great find, and one of our favorite adventures of the whole trip. More about that: Tapir Time.

 

But we came upon so many other creatures too.

 

Mottled Owl, Belize

 

Owls and bats are a big draw on night drives, and the Belizean forest did not disappoint. I’m always happy to see bats because it means there is a balance in the ecosystem. We saw about 20 individual bats on our two night drives. The lights on the vehicle brought them in, for the insects, then they’d spin away into the black oblivion.

 

We spotted this spectacled owl with a snake. When we drove off, we watched the owl carry the Fer-de-lance snake, highly venemous, back to a palm tree where we suspected there was a nest.

 

Spectacled Owl with Fer-de-lance snake

 

Owls and bats are not the only nocturnal flyers. There were also common pauraques and northern potoos, bird species in the nightjar family (Caprimulgiformes).

 

Pauraques were especially prevalent in this rainforest. When they aren’t flying, they are on the ground, camouflaged in leaf litter; this parent was hiding a little one.

 

Common Parauque adult sitting on top of chick

 

They feed on insects, and were attracted to the constant bug flurry around the lodge’s landscape lights. I heard them every night, so loud that sometimes they woke me up.

 

Sound of pauraque in night forest. 

 

At one point, the driver spotted a wild cat called a margay. We had a two-second look at it before he or she disappeared into the forest. Camouflage spots, quick and stealthy…gone in a flash.

 

Margay. Photo: Brian Gratwicke, courtesy Wikipedia.

They are small, the size of an ocelot, native to Belize, and nocturnal. Their populations are declining, so we were happy to see this rare wild cat.

 

There were large moths and small; beady eyes looking out of the tangled trees; lots of croaking frogs. We came upon a raccoon who was hunting high in a tree; and deer in their nighttime mode, frozen in place by the spotlight. This mammal emerged out of the shadows and it took a few seconds to see it was a tapir.

 

Tapir (center) coming out of the jungle shadows

 

Every day we saw cattle in a pasture on the edge of the forest. At dawn we were there chasing parrots and toucans, while the cattle unabashedly stared at us. When we came back at night, their shining eyes were still staring at us.

 

Cattle in pasture

 

One night we were walking on the lodge grounds when we heard a plop, and found this cane toad, a native.

 

Cane toad, Rhinella marina

 

It’s cooler at night, and the moving vehicle creates a wind that feels luxurious after a long, sweaty day. But the best part of the night drives is seeing this mysterious nocturnal world come alive.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander except margay.

Baird’s Tapir, juvenile and mother, Belize

 

 

Parade of Leafcutter Ants

2013

Leafcutter Ants, Belize

Leafcutter ants are productive farmers with an elaborate society based on ant-fungus mutualism; i.e., a symbiotic relationship between the ant and the fungus. One day last month I had the joy of watching some especially clever ants taking a shortcut.

 

The ants get safe, underground living accommodations from the fungus, including a means to feed their ant larvae. And in turn, the ants keep the fungus fed and cleaned. Although the ants don’t actually eat from their fungal garden, they chew up the delivered leaves to decompose for the nest.

 

Many colonies contain approximately one million ants, but there can be as many as 8-10 million ants.

 

The ants bite off a piece of leaf and carry it back to the fungal garden, their underground nest. This is what we humans see as each ant carries a leaf chunk down the trail. An underground nest can grow to more than 98 feet (30 m) across, with additional chambers leading off of that.

 

Leafcutter Ant carrying leaf spear

There are many tasks in a community this large, and each individual has a specific role including the queen, several castes of workers, foragers, and soldiers.

 

Next to humans, they have the largest and most complex animal society on earth.

 

Leafcutter Ants Wikipedia

 

I’ve seen leafcutter ants in many tropical venues, and always on a forest trail or in grass. They often have a conspicuous trail, because there are so many ants moving back and forth that eventually they wear down the vegetation, as seen here.

 

Leafcutter Ant trails in grass (bottom right and leading from plant on top left)

 

Lodge Pool, Belize

 

One day Athena and I were swimming at the lodge pool, when we noticed little morsels of leaf parading across the floor tiles. There weren’t that many, maybe one ant every foot (.30 meter) or so. I don’t think other people would have even noticed them, but I am always on the lookout for leafcutters, because I think they are one of the most amazing creatures on earth.

 

The stamina! The industriousness! The tenacity of a leafcutter ant is completely inspiring. Their strength is astounding. They can carry 12-20 times their body weight.

 

After some investigation, we discovered they were taking a rainforest shortcut through the pool area. They entered at one end of the pool enclosure, walked across the pink floor tiles, and exited at the other end. This was about a 50-60 foot long (15-18 m) trail. They traveled along the floor edge, near the plantings, under the lounge chairs.

 

There were places where water was on the floor, which upset the parade. A simple small puddle threw off their scent. Here they circled around for a half minute or so, but would then stabilize, get back on track, and eventually find their way to the exit rock.

Leafcutter Ant disoriented by water spot

Each one took the exact same trail, and they all vanished at the same place. The exit rock is in the center of this photo below–there was a gap between the second and third rocks, about the size of a fist.

Rock exit, between second and third rocks

 

Ant with leaf exiting, in shadow of rock on right

As the plot thickened, we went outside the pool enclosure, thinking there would be a continued trail. But instead they were gone. They had vanished underground, reached their destination. There we stood in our dripping pool clothes, fascinated.

 

It was a very hot, humid day; all the birds were resting, all the humans were resting. But the leafcutter ants, they just kept marching.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Leafcutter Ants, Costa Rica