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Zompopos Hunting in Downtown San Jose

- by A. Sunjian

This article was a result from a trip to Costa Rica that we made in November 2002.

In Costa Rica, leaf-cutter ants are called "Zompopos". This is not just a generalized name for ants, but one given specifically by the local people for those big red ants that collect leaves and travel in long lines. My spanish is not fluent in any sense of the word, but I got on relatively ok when asking people for information on these 'las hormigas'. My standard question was "Hay zompopos aqui? En Donde?" ("Have zompops here? Where?")

On the afternoon of our last full day in Costa Rica, I travelled by bus to the Parque Sabana near downtown central San Jose. A man had earlier told me that there were zompopos in that park, close to the artificial lake. He had said that the ants did not like the gigantic eucalyptus trees that were the majority of trees planted in the park, but that there were more palatable fare closer to water.

In the parque, i spent the next few hours going around asking people for zompopos....about half said they had no idea, but a few continued telling me the ants were around or near the lake.

By around 5 pm, tired and somewhat dispirited, I still had not found any leafcutters, and was resigned to going back to the hotel and getting ready for the morning flight.

I met one family (a father, son, daughter, and mother), and the father said he had seen some before, but waved vaguely in a general direction when I asked for specifics. I continued on, but suddenly the little boy came running towards me calling 'Senor senor'....i talked to him - in my rudimentary spanish - and he said they had found some! It turns out the father had found a nest mound and line of zompopos coming out. He seemed pretty proud of his find, and before we parted declared that he was a great investigator (or at least, that's what i got from my rudimentary spanish), and I was only too happy to agree.

It turns out the one mound he had found, a pile of soil erupting from the concrete sidewalks of a restroom facility (?), was just part of a humonguous colony whose mounds dotted around the entire small building! It was turning to night, and the zompopos (in this case, Atta cephalotes) were just beginning to come out!

Here's a pic of a set of mounds close to a support....the brownish dots you see are darker soil just turned out by the ants pouring from within, in addition to the ants themselves.

Here a black formicine ant decides it is not a good idea to remain where it is......it is circled by energetic and fast moving Atta cephalotes workers.

Here's an awesome-looking major worker, with elegant spines sprouting from its back...the 3 pairs of thoracic spines in back distinguish it from Acromyrmex ants.

I came home by 630pm, but my wife was not home yet...after doodling around,i went out and flashlighted a nearby park for more zompopos, to no avail....two police came over, probably wondering what the hell i was doing...After explaining, one cop said he did see them in that park on other nights.

So, it turns out, the zompopos had adapted pretty well to the urban lifestyle as well!

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