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Army Ants

Facts

  • Scientific name: Eciton burchellii
  • Habitat: Tropical rainforests
  • Conservation status: Extant
  • Threat to existence: Habitat loss and fragmentation
  • Fun fact: They live in portable homes called bivouacs!

Additional source: Wikipedia

Image source: Myrmecos

Our tour of the rainforests continues as Kolbert takes us to the Brazilian Amazon, where another fascinating experiment is taking place. There you can find a large number of squarish islands of forest in a sea of farmland. The experiment came about because of two simultaneous Brazilian directives: 1) subsidized deforestation for cattle farms, and 2) a law requiring farmers to leave half the forest on their property intact. One scientist named Lovejoy saw this as an extremely unique opportunity to study habitat fragmentation. So he requested that he work with the farmers to determine what parts of their property not to deforest. The result is a number of habitat islands called reserves.

Habitats have been fragmented by humans almost everywhere you look: roads crisscross the countryside, telephone and power lines cut through the wild, cities and towns speckle the map. How has this changed how ecosystems operate? It is with good reason that the reserves were referred to as islands, because the behave the same way as a real island. From the time the fragment is separated from the rest of the habitat, the number of species “relaxes”, or gradually declines over time. This relaxing is best demonstrated by our ant friends.

Remember about tropical animals being the best at their niche? The army ants have created a whole niche of their own. These ants are nomadic, intermittently going on marches through the undergrowth foraging along the way. Countless species have specialized and become dependent, either directly or secondarily, on these army ant marches. The issue is that as habitats are fragmented, there is no longer enough army ants to guarantee that there will always be a colony on the march. The ant-dependent species have no other options as that was their niche of expertise. The cascade effect is can be staggering in these islands of habitat.

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