F-ANT-ASTIC

View from the top of turtle mountain. Taken by my guide Egbert.

I actually did have my GPS, this time…So I walked the trail, charting my course the whole while. Fortunately I found some different insects in this part of the jungle. It never ceases to amaze me how different trails no more than several hundred metres apart can support different species. It might be plants or trees which grow only in a swampy/bright area which in turn support their own fauna. Whatever the cause, this patchy distribution makes for new findings in the most unexpected places and part of the reason why we’ll probably never chart even half the untold multitude of undiscovered species.

Egbert lent me ‘a guide to Amazonian reptiles and Amphibians’ which I read until night fall whereupon we would put into practice our (my) scheme of walking all night and then climbing to the top of turtle mountain to watch the sunrise. He had never done this before so he was game. Now Egbert is a bird man. He had apparently gone to the states on some kind of birding apprenticeship program whereby they select several tourism representatives and they go on birding expeditions and learn biology and nomenclature of various avifauna. Basically all I really got out of it was that he got some sweet free equipment, a pair of Swarovski binoculars and a scope totalling about $4000 US. However gradually through his association with me macrophotography has insinuated itself into his psyche and he has become more and more interested in this aspect of photography. And hey, if he wants to accompany me all night to take pictures of little bugs, getting down on his hands and knees to look under rocks, being bitten by ants and mosquitos all power to him! I lent him my macro lens as well which he fell in love with and I nearly had to knock him out to recover it. Here’s an example of one of his photos. I spotted this butterfly and he got this beautiful shot off.

Clearwing butterfly (Cythaeris sp.) taken by Egbert, a guide at Iwokrama.

The night yielded a decent number of insects. Best of which were some bullet ants. Despite these being pretty common in the jungle I can’t help myself wherever behaviour is on display. Here these ants got hold of a large caterpillar.

Bullet ants (Paraponera clavata) tearing apart a caterpillar. One grabbed hold of the caterpillar but the load proved too much so another ant quickly joined in. Between the two of them they cut the caterpillar into more manageable pieces with their strong mandibles and returned to their nest. Turtle mountain, Guyana.

I had been up 24hrs by this point since I had pulled an all nighter searching for insects the previous evening, so I couldn’t quite live up to the staying up all night portion of the plan, however we went for about 6hrs before I crashed. Awaking at 4:30am to the sound of an opossum going through our supplies I kicked Egbert awake.

Opossum raiding the kitchen. Photo by Egbert.

“Hey Eggy!” “Uhhh…” he groaned rolling over on the hard bench he was sleeping on. “Can we still make the sunrise?” “Uhhhhh…” “EGGY!!!” Egbert startles awake, “mmm…maybe”. “Let’s go”, I prod him. Egbert shuffles into his clothing and sounds regretful that he had suggested this whole overnight expedition. Aware that we are racing against Appollo’s heavenly chariot (Greek mythology people, God of the sun, sheesh!) I race forward and a slightly overweight Egbert lumbers on behind me panting. Every time we slow he mops at the perspiration beading on his forehead.  45 minutes later we make it up to the top of turtle mountain to witness the glowing red ball peak over the luminous cloudscape, the sylvan shroud left behind like a discarded eggshell as the yoke slid antigravitationally in the sky, the orangey yellow glow permeating the horizon.

Sunrise from turtle mountain

ANT-ASTIC

“Okay…let’s share”. A couple of ants sharing an extrafloral nectary. Iwokrama reserve, Guyana.

I have developed an unhealthy fascination with ants attracted to extrafloral nectaries. Not only because they are extremely abundant around Iwokrama and can be found at any time, but also because I find the behaviour surrounding these natural sugar sources to be interesting and they usually make for some excellent photographic opportunities. Ants generally have fairly poor vision and hence their reliance on chemical trails. When guarding their nectaries it can seen like a comedy of errors sometimes as other ants of the same colony pass by and are lashed out at, often times a leg is grabbed by a colleague and then hastily let go – “sorry, sorry” you can imagine the one saying. “Every damn time”, the response.

An ant bites one of his colleagues who gets to close to his nectary. Iwokrama reserve, Guyana.

Size is no barrier to aggression!

Aggressive ant protecting its nectary.

It is not just the nectaries which are of interest but sap sucking bugs (Hemipterans). These bugs have a long proboscis which they stick into the plant and through the plant’s own pressure they fill up the bug with the sugary phloem (sap).

Derbid. Connected to the head is the long proboscis which extends down between the legs. It inserts this into the plant to extract the phloem. Manu national park, Peru.

Plants are in a continuous battle with these bugs which has led to an evolutionary arms race. It is not only the purloining of precious, hard earned sugars which is hard to accept for the plants, but these bugs also carry a variety of pathogens which can be transmitted to the plant via their unauthorized visitations. So the plants have developed a variety of defences, both physical and chemical. One such method is the introduction of small peptides into their sap which upon contact with air solidify, gumming up the mouthparts of any insect, and serving the dual function of forming a scab over the cut surface preventing further infection. This has stopped some insects though others have found a way around this. Chemical deterrence is another route that some plants have gone down. Toxic alkaloids or indigestible peptides laced with the sought after foodstuffs is a popular strategy. Though some insects have not only found a way around this, but have even exploited it to their advantage! Monarchs for instance feed on the toxic milkweed. Not only do they not suffer from the toxic alkaloids present in the plant, by the accumulate it and use it to in a similar way, so that they become unpalatable to avian predators. Together with their aposematic colouration, birds have learned to avoid them. Neotropical insects have developed along similar lines.

An aposematic coreid bug. Manu national park, Peru.

To further complicate matters you have ants. These are both protectors and little Benedict Arnolds, selling out to the highest bidder – where the currency is sugar of course. When you can’t beat them, farm them! Plants have a love/hate relationship with ants. They have developed extrafloral nectaries for the purpose of luring ants to defend them from parasites and predators.This strategy is so effective that many species even those that are exclusively predatory, like trapjaw ants (Odontomachus sp.), can be seen patrolling the leaves of nectary producing plants.

Trapjaw ant (Odontomachus sp.) feeding at an extrafloral nectary. Iwokrama, Guyana.

Even leafbuds can sometimes produce sugary water through the ‘breathing’ of the stomata.

Ant attending to a newly emerging leaflet that appears to be exuding a sugary exudate. Iwokrama reserve, Guyana.

But ants go where the sugar is, and so sometimes if a plant has become host to hemipterans, then ants will simply farm these invaders and reap the sugary benefits to the detriment of the plants. The complex interrelationships make for interesting study! Ants aren’t too picky about what they farm as long as they get the honeydew in return. Seen here is an ant farming a scale insect.

Ant hovering protectively over a scale insect. Intent on harvesting the honeydew. Iwokrama reserve, Guyana.

The ant atop the scale can detect the movement of another ant nearby but maintains its aggressive stance until it is certain that it is a member of the colony and not a threat. Iwokrama reserve, Guyana.

These are bugs with hardened carapaces. They are mobile as nymphs but as they grow and develop their hard exteriors they cease to move, secrete a kind of glue to fasten onto their host plant and feed. These insects are real pests and can develop into extremely large colonies, especially with the help of ants. These together with mealy bugs are the bane of many florists due to their tendency to favour leaf axils and hence become very difficult to remove entirely from the plant.

Ants will move among whole colonies of scale insects, lavishing care, diligently attending to the needs of each. Iwokrama reserve, Guyana.

Very odd looking scale insect, possibly in a nymphal stage. With the ever present guardian. Iwokrama reserve, Guyana.

Treehoppers find a host plant and feed but unlike the scale they remain mobile and can find a new plant should the occasion demand it. They are a large and diverse family and they come in a dazzling array of colours and shapes.

Treehopper nymphs

Ants attending to a treehopper. Mahdia, Guyana.

Treehopper (Alchisme sp.). Manu national park, Peru.

Treehopper (Oeda inflata). Kurupukari crossing, Guyana.

Treehopper nymph. Mahdia, Guyana.

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

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