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Soldados de Los Zompopos

- by D. Allan Drummond (from Adaptivity.org)

From July 8 to August 9, 2002, D. Allan Drummond attended the total-immersion Spanish school Eco-Escuela de Español in San Andrés, Petén, Guatemala, a town of about 9,000 people on the north shore of Lake Petén-Itzá in the country's largest and northernmost state. He wrote about it later in an excellent article that also discussed his experiences with the soldados de los zompopos. I highly recommend reading the entire article here.

Two weeks before arriving in Guatemala, I was in London, where I visited the Natural History Museum and was fascinated and delighted by their colony of leaf-cutter ants. Little did I know that leaf-cutters, or zompopos as they're called, are so common they're a nuisance here in San Andrés.

My first encounter with them was quite personal. One night, standing outside a student's house, I felt a bite on my toe, and then another. Another bite, not a little mosquito-nip but a full-on chomp. I brushed at my feet frantically, and called to be let in. Another, more painful. Another. I'm dancing, but blind in the darkness, staggering around. Once inside, I immediately shed my sandals. Several pebble-sized red weals marked my feet. I didn't know then that zompopos aren't venomous — those big bites were simply from the physical trauma of those shiny mandibles tearing flesh. I had accidentally stepped into a feeding line.

A week later, eager to do a drawing, I went in search of soldados de los zompopos, the leaf-cutter soldiers, and trooped back to that nest. I finally found some big soldiers on the cliffside, transporting clumps of stinking fungus from one hole to another lower down. I managed to capture a few in a jar without getting bitten and took them home to draw.

The soldiers are fantastic, easily three or four times larger than the workers, with curved spines on their backs and oversized heads with gleaming black mandibles that are like headlights emerging from the nest when they climb out. After the capture, covered in sweat and dirt from climbing around, I met Ernesto, general manager of the Eco-Escuela, in a tienda (shop) and showed him the soldiers. He said, "Oh, those are really small, you should go out to the jungle — they get really big out there."

A day later, I got my teacher, Niger, to go to the sendero (jungle path) with me to find more soldados. The zompopero (zompopo nest) on the sendero is enormous, about 6m across with hundreds of holes leading down to the caverns below. It must house millions of ants, a troupe so large that when they go to take out a tree, their passage wears the earth smooth in a 8cm-wide line from the nest to their destination. Within a couple of minutes of tree-shaking near the nest, Niger says, "Look!" There, trundling out of the hole with antennae waving, is the largest ant I've ever seen in my life. It's easily three or four times as big as the biggest soldier I had caught the previous day, with a head the size of a cufflink, long slender legs and a upsized thorax as well. It was both a simple magnification of the other soldiers I'd seen, the same but huge, and an exaggeration, with a head and jaws so big just one could clearly draw blood on first bite.

We caught it, then another slightly larger, then three more. I took them home, still marveling hours later, and drew one of them; the goal in finding big soldiers was to be able to draw one semi-accurately without a magnifying glass. Also, while the workers are always running around, desperate to do something, the soldiers are seemingly content to stand perfectly still for hours on end, a nice trait when you're ten times larger than everyone else and would probably require a hundred times as much food at the same activity level. This helped with the drawing, too; I just waited (for an hour or so) until I got one of the soldiers to stop in the center of a sheet of paper inside a jar lid. I drew it just like that.

Later, I showed these soldiers to Ernesto and the other teachers. They said, "Oh, those are pretty small, you really need to stir up the nest to get the really big ones to come out." I have yet to see these monsters, because I don't really want to disturb the nest in a destructive way, but I confess I'm curious.

To get a sense for the size polymorphism, here's one researcher's photograph of four heads collected from the garbage pile of a laboratory colony. The smallest worker is about half a centimeter long from mandibles to hind legs; the soldier's head is 6mm across, slightly smaller than the soldiers I encountered. In life, the soldiers hold their jaws as in the drawing, and their heads are haloed with downy golden fur. I can't imagine the pain I would have been in if I had blundered into anything more than the food line of a tiny satellite nest that night.

These ants make the ones at the British Natural History Museum look like dust mites.

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