Magazine article Natural History

Drama at My Feet

Magazine article Natural History

Drama at My Feet

Article excerpt

On a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada some years ago, I was sitting in quiet contemplation at my campsite beside a small alpine lake, when I became aware of a flurry of activity going on around me. Narrowing my senses to ground level, I was drawn into a bustling world of miniature creatures. As I watched, several kinds of ants crossed my view, followed by a tiny red mite, a sizable wolf spider, and two colorful jumping spiders. At least three species of fly landed in plain sight, "tasting" the landscape with their feet. A grasshopper materialized, then several hornets, two shiny black wasps, a drab brown damselfly, and a large azure-blue dragonfly.

Already engrossed in the passing scene, I saw something that was to capture my rapt attention for hours to come. In a shallow depression of granite, I noticed what appeared to be a large black insect. Moving closer, I saw the "insect" was really two large carpenter ants. These giants of the ant family, each at least three-quarters of an inch long, were tightly locked together, jaw-to-jaw, and fiercely immobile except for an occasional twitching leg. Apparently of different species-one was totally black and the other had a black body but maroon legs-the two had been left behind, I surmised, from a major military engagement somewhere close by, an operation probably involving entire tribes of their kind. Once joined in mortal struggle, were they unable, or unwilling, to disengage?

Then I made a grisly discovery: neither ant possessed a complete set of legs. Even more appalling, the severed head of another ant was clamped, by its jaws, in a death-grip to one antenna of the all-black ant. I imagined the epic battle that must have taken place, fought with a ferocity I had only read about as a boy. The two ants remained locked together for nearly two hours, and though I was tempted to poke the gladiators into a more animated contest, I decided not to interfere. …

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