Home ---> Notes ---> article

(en español)

"John Huston and the Night of the Leafcutter Ants"

- by A. Sunjian

This article was a result from a trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico that we made in November 27-December 8 2003.

A DVD of the ants is available for non-commercial users.

I knelt in the darkness, my large lantern/flashlight tracing circles of light as I examined the amazingly long lines of leafcutters ants that crossed the stone walkway and disappeared into the dark riverbank. Giant soldiers the size of my fingernails moved ponderously among their much smaller nestmates, while small patrollers weaved back and forth between the lines in their never-ending search for any threats or opportunities that might arise. Far off in the distance, I could faintly hear the drone of another speaker lauding the memory of director John Huston, and behind me people chatted amiably as they crossed one of the swaying bridges that connected the Isla Cuale to the rest of Puerto Vallarta.

It was a warm, star-filled night, and I had just found my first Atta mexicana colony!

We had explored downtown Puerto Vallarta earlier in the day, walking along the Malecon (Puerto Vallarta's famous boardwalk), and hiking up the steep streets that rocketed up Gringo Gulch, the section of town that housed many rich Norteamericano gringos and lay sprawled like a blight along the face of a nearby hill. Puerto Vallarta sits between the gorgeous green-blue Pacific ocean on the west and gigantic, towering, green-clad mountains to the east, and we walked its quaint cobblestone roads as if in a trance, luxuriating in the sheer beauty of the place.

It was our first full day in the place, and I had already found my first leafcutters, a small nest of Acromyrmex just a block or so away from our motel. Questioning locals about the whereabouts and existence of the "hormigas arrieras" elicited the usual responses: all knew the ant I was talking about, but a lot did not believe they were present in the town. Another group thought only small types of the ant were in the town. But up in the steep hillside surrounding Gringo Gulch, we met the first local who enthusiastically proclaimed that there were indeed lots of large hormigas arrieras near his house! Unfortunately, a quick search of the area did not turn up any ants, something I expected since my experience with Atta at this time of the year is that they tend to come out in force only at night.

After our climb up Gringo Gulch, we meandered over to Isla Cuale, the tree-lined island that sits in the center of town, connected to the mainland by rickety bridges that span the slow-moving Rio Cuale. As we sat in the shade and mulled over the statue of John Huston, I talked to a lady nearby and hit paydirt! She said confidenly that there were indeed lots of hormigas arrieras in the park, but they only came out at night.

Filled with renewed vigor, we then happened upon a poster about the John Huston Film festival. The town of Puerto Vallarta holds a special fondness for director John Huston, the director of the critically-acclaimed 1964 film Night of the Iguana, who brought in Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and a lot of other high-powered stars for the filming and placed Puerto Vallarta solidly on the world map. Burton and Taylor bought two houses (connected by a pink bridge)in Gringo Gulch, while Huston himself spent the last 20 years of his life in his adopted town.

The town was holding a week-long celebration of Huston's films, and we dropped in later that night to see what all the fuss was about, while at the same time taking a long look at the place in search of A. mexicana. In the center of the small island, they had erected an enormous movie screen, and in front of this open air theater had placed row upon row of folding chairs for the audience. While my wife sat morosely twiddling her thumbs and waiting for the festivities to begin, I took my handy lantern and started my quest.

Although there were lighted lamp-posts at regular intervals, most of the grounds lay in darknes, and I had to continuously swing the lantern back and forth in order to see clearly. Incredibly enough, I had barely walked 10 meters away from the stage when I happened upon a lone brick-red leafcutter forager trundling along contentedly by the edge of the walkway! I dropped to my knees and scoured the surrounding area with my light, and was embarrased to see that I had blindly walked across a long, thick line of leafcutters that bisected the road.

The sheer joy and pleasure that washed over me when I first saw that foraging line of A. mexicana is something that is hard to describe. It might be akin to what a scuba diver feels when seeing a coral reef, or what a wine connoisseur might experience when sipping a particularly rare and delicious vintage.

I spent the next half hour or so tracking the line to its source, but was foiled when I realized that it wandered over into the dense foliage that covered the banks of the Rio Cuale. Undeterred, I continued to probe the area for other ants and soon happened upon a second long foraging line of ants. In this case, the leafcutters had happened upon a treasure trove of breakfast cereals, and were busy carting off the pieces into their foraging hole.

It was very a happy ending to a very fruitful and exciting day.

Return to previous page

Web Site Author: A. Sunjian
Site Created 2003.10.11
Site Dedication