On a warm Saturday morning in mid February, I was exploring the eastern section of the Falls of the Ohio State Park. At first glance, I had the place to myself and I began my systematic sweep of the shoreline looking for whatever the river had temporarily marooned here. Usually, I will walk down to the water’s edge first and then I comb the bank walking back and forth until I hit the treeline. This typically takes an hour or so and my collecting bag quickly fills up with all kinds of river treasures both natural and artificial. This morning was to prove to be a memorable one when I came across a creature new to me and I believe science as well?
Years of bird watching had trained me to key on the slightest movement that might betray a creature’s location. Such was the case when I came across this extraordinary insect that was exploring the same territory as me! I saw a little motion from the corner of my eye while scanning the riverbank that proved to be this very large ant’s wiggling legs. This is not my first encounter with a large insect at the Falls of the Ohio. Previously, I had discovered five other giants of different species all belonging to a genus I had dubbed “Polystyrenus”… because their exoskeletons look like they are made from weathered Styrofoam. The following is my report complete with photographs and observations made in the field.
I would estimate that this insect’s body, (which looks to be an “ant”), to be about a foot in length. Of course, the articulated legs make it seem bigger. Its eyes appeared to be simple and its mouth parts seemed feeble. I surmised that whatever it fed upon didn’t require the shearing power of larger mandibles. I could be more certain of this, but I refused to “collect” or kill this creature in the name of science just to complete a more thorough morphological examination . The thought crossed my mind that this could be the young of the Giant Blue Ant I had seen here a couple of years a go? I also noticed that many of its legs were different from one another and each appendage might be a different tool like blades in a Swiss Army knife?
While the ant explored its world I discreetly followed along. My camera is equipped with a telephoto lens nearly as big as the bug. Still, I found this particular specimen to be amazingly tolerant of my presence. I watched it while it moved to the river’s edge, but I could not gauge its purpose here.
Interestingly, I did observe it checking out a couple of frayed barge cables that were snagged and unraveling among the willow branches. It seemed very intent with the fiber strands and used its six legs to gather up the strings into a ball.
Here’s the ant on a different branch. I wonder if it is responsible for the cuts on this cable? You can see an intact length of this heavy rope on the sand below. Could this be some form of play? This is a question to be answered later. I never saw the ant do anything else with these two cables . Does anyone out there have a hypothesis? Moving on, I did get some very interesting images of the ant either feeding or drinking that show how unusual this ant is from its smaller kin.
On several occasions I was able to observe our remarkable ant taking “sustenance” from iridescent water which flowed in rivulets from the sand below. What is this stuff? Is it petroleum pollution or the oils and minerals leaching from other biodegradable materials breaking down below the sand? As it fed, the ant was at its least cautious. Perhaps it was drunk? I walked up to it and was able to take this aerial view. The rainbow-effect on the sand contrasted nicely against the whiteness of the insect. You can easily see the basic insect body plan with its head, thorax, and abdomen. Of course, all true insects have six legs.
Here’s another image that comes as a revelation and shows clearly how it feeds.
Like a butterfly, the ant unveiled a long proboscis or feeding tube and lowered into the sheen. Its abdomen pulsed while it sucked. I kept thinking about what this stuff is that bubbles to the surface and could it be responsible for the appearance here of these large insects? Is this some local version of the “Godzilla-effect” where pollution mutates the endemic creatures into giants? Well, at least I think Clarksville, Indiana will be safe from this ant for the time being. Now if millions of these ants were to show up at the same time…then this story could change.
After imbibing this strange brew, I observed the Giant White Ant exploring the park. A previous visitor had found an orange life-preserver and placed it over the branch of a tree. Here the ant gets on its “hind” legs to investigate the ring. This ant displays a lot of curiosity about its world. For a short-time, I lost track of the ant which is able to walk across the driftwood more quickly than I, but I was able to relocate it when I came across this shattered plastic barrel. It kind of looked at home here and so I left it be and moved on.
That’s it…I have more pictures, but they don’t reveal anymore about the Giant White Ant’s behavior. Of course, I hope to see it again provided it manages to evade its enemies and stay alive. What will the “Godzilla-effect” produce here next? I wonder if E.O. Wilson has encountered anything like this before in all his researches? I’ll close now with a final image of my ant.