Alone is all it’s cracked up to be…except when you forget your GPS and wind up several kilometers into the jungle lost

A pretty happy mosquito (Psorophora ferox). Iwokrama reserve, Guyana.

Didn’t realize how much time I would spend just cooking and looking after myself. So I decided to trim the fat on my daily routine. Breakfast, who needs that? Shower, gone. Brushing teeth, washing face- Never did that anyway. Reading war and peace…here I oscillated, personal hygiene is one thing, but needing to dispense with a heavy and totally unnecessary book, that, now that would take some real resolve. So the days pass in a kaleidoscope of colourful bugs, and a symphony of rainforest sound. What more could I want? Well I was actually really craving some Coke…So when my will bent I would make the kilometer or so hike out of the jungle to the road and then to the Nature View Guesthouse and indulge my craving. Of course this isn’t without its hazards, especially when I lose my way in the dark on my way back to camp. “No problem, I’ll just check my handy…my handy…ummm, okay this could be bad”-my hands check every pocket, and every fold of fabric like a skilled thief, but they don’t find anything. I’m somewhere in the jungle, in the dark without my GPS…this could be bad…Like any well trained jungle adventurer I curl up into a ball, cry a little and resolve to wait until daylight before I move and try to find my way back to camp lest things really get bad. I hear a buzz and the first mosquito lands… “Awwwwwww fuck!”

I hope you enjoyed yourself! Psorophora ferox mosquito in Iwokrama reserve, Guyana.

Hunger chews at my stomach, “Ow that’s really painful”- I shine the flashlight down to find a horde of army ants, their raiding party has found a HUGE meal. I feel their stings, their bites, I’m literally getting it from both ends. The whole not moving plan that sounded so good (well the best of several bad options) has been washed a way in a sea of biting ants. I run in the direction I came, well at least I think it’s where I came from. “I think I remember seeing that tree on the way in…” I turn around, “no, no it was that tree…No THAT’s the one…” Okay, obviously I don’t know where I am. But the important thing is I won’t be carried away in little pieces any more by those damnable ants. If snakes and jaguars get out of their way, who am I to argue. It’s one versus roughly a million!

A small group of army ants (Eciton burchellii) with many more to follow. Manu national park, Peru.

Even MacGyver was afraid of them (See episode 6 season 1), so I have good precedent! Thousands to millions of ants form huge roving colonies that scour the forest floor for anything that moves. Nomadic, they never settle in one place for long but rather form temporary shelters called bivouacs where they spend a night or two and then march on. How do ants build temporary nests so quickly, like any well trained army, they set up and take down their shelters remarkably quickly using only the resources they have at hand (or in their case, at legs); themselves. Army ants chain their limbs together from ant to ant to form bridges across obstacles, rafts across water, and yes…even nests!

Several workers have chained their limbs together to form a bridge to facilitate the movement for others carrying larvae or food. Manu national park, Peru.

These nests are complete with chambers for the larvae, pupae and Queen. They have rooms and corridors and while appearing like nothing more than a seething tangle of angry ants on the outside, on the inside they are a seething tangle of angry ants AND a very organized superstructure.

Army ant bivouac (Eciton sp.). Kanuku mountains, Guyana.

There are always some ants that are on the prowl for their next nesting location, these are the scouts. And it is not until these get back and a consensus is reached that they start to break camp. A train develops with some ants fanning out in raiding parties looking for food to sustain the colony, the main trail leads to the future nesting site and has many workers, usually carrying a small, white, oval package…the future of the colony.

An army ant worker (Eciton burchellii) with larva, photographed while moving between nests. Kaieteur falls, Guyana. (See tips and tricks to see how I got this shot).

Of course sometimes it takes more than just one ant to move a package and well, they don’t always agree fully on how this is best done.

3 Army ants (Eciton burchellii) attempt to carry a huge larva. Kaieteur falls, Guyana.

Interspersed between these workers are soldiers: Look upon them and shudder. They have disproportionately huge mandibles which curve inwards like twin scimitars. Once they bite, they are so difficult to remove that the Amerindians once used them to suture wounds (They would grab an army ant and push its head onto the cut in such a way that the right and left mandible each lay to one side of the cut and would clamp it shut. So tenaciously do these ants hold on, that the head and mandibles can be left to suture the wound shut even after the rest of the body has been twisted off).

An army ant soldier (Eciton burchellii) displaying its mandibles to good effect in an aggressive display. Manu national park, Peru.
Army ant soldier (Eciton sp.). Kanuku mountains, Guyana.

It is the workers however that do the hunting. They have shorter mandibles which are more suited for cutting up their prey into smaller more manageable portions. It is through their sheer numbers and aggressive behaviour that they are able to take down much larger prey. In Africa, the related family of Driver ants are actually used to clean village homes. When cockroaches and other pests have settled in, people don’t fight the invading swarms of Driver ants, but rather invite them into their homes where they clean them of all foreigners, leaving these mud homes as clean as the day as the mud first dried.

Somehow I managed to fall asleep amongst the ant bites and firefly lights. It was a short sleep and I woke with the dawn but the day lends more confidence than night, and I took out my compass, reckoned my bearing and took off. Cutting through bushes, falling down embankments and face planting into spider web after frustrating spider web I finally collapsed on the road. I wiped the collection of insects which had stuck to my brow and sweat streaked arms, but more flew, fluttered and crawled towards the sweaty epicentre. I made it back to the guesthouse where I guzzled by the gallon pop of all shape and form, Coke, cream soda, pineapple, cotton candy, whatever! It was cold and that’s all that mattered. Finally after a half day’s recovery I slowly walked back paying attention to every leaf and twig, intent not to lose my way again. I walked studiously like a hunter, with measured steps and… “awww fuck I’m lost AGAIN!” I cried as I failed to recognize any of my surroundings. Okay…”I think I remember seeing that tree on the way in…” I turn around, “no, no it was that tree…No THAT’s the one…”…this situation seemed all to familiar. In fact it was the exact same place as I had walked to the previous night. Lesson 1, recognize the unrecognizable. I backtracked slightly, and then through the bushes I saw a slight flutter, almost like… And I ran to my camp like in those slow motion love scenes you see in the movies. Of course I tripped a few times and ran into spider webs which seemed to occur in stupefying numbers as though their tiny silken strands were designed not to catch insects but rather to keep me away. Finally I arrived at my camp, embraced my hammock like a lost lover and gorged on canned tuna and packaged soup. Hunger does make the sweetest sauce.

Take me to- how you got those amazing photos?!!!!- http://pbertner.wordpress.com/photography-tips-tricks-and-techniques/

2 Responses to Alone is all it’s cracked up to be…except when you forget your GPS and wind up several kilometers into the jungle lost

  1. Adrian says:

    Hi,
    My name is Adrian, age 37 and I am from Malaysia.
    I too am a zoology and cell & microbiology graduated and love to trek jungles observing invertebrates, often alone. However I only trek in my own country and have yet to venture out. I just found your website and just want to let you know that the photos and articles you post are simply amazing and very interesting to read. I look forward to reading all your adventures and new ones that come. All the best in your travels! Cheers!

    • pbertner says:

      Hi Adrian,

      It’s always great to hear from like minded individuals. You’ve got plenty of material in Malaysia to last several lifetimes! I just hope that you’re able to make it out to Borneo since it is truly a spectacular part of Malaysia with some very interesting endemic creatures. Be sure to do some night hiking as you will find a completely new set of creatures emerging, especially since there aren’t too many dangerous, threatening animals in Malaysia. Probably 90% of my finds are at night.

      Thanks for the compliments, they are very appreciated.
      Best regards,
      Paul

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