Sabi Sands Photographic Safari

Matabele ants: Raiders of termites

Matabele ant, Pachycondyla analis

© Vaughan Jessnitz

Written, and photographs, by Vaughan Jessnitz from Bushwise

One of the many interesting ants in the African bushveld is the matabele ant (Pachycondyla analis). Their fame comes from their most organised raids of termites on which they feed!

The morning’s raid usually starts with scout ants searching an area around the nest for termite foraging sites without actually getting into contact with the termites or entering the galleries (like spies), before returning to recruit its nestmates to conduct the raid. The scout ant then leads the raid from the front, with the other ants following in a column-like formation (this is how they are usually seen). Just before contact with the termites, the raiding column stops and waits until all the ants have congregated, forming a sort of circle around the raid leader (the scout). Afterwards the ants rush forward towards the termites in an open formation and overwhelm their prey.

During the attack, an awesome division of labour happens. While the major ants focus mostly on breaking up the protective layer over the foraging galleries of the termites, the minor ants rush into the galleries to kill the termites through the created openings. After the attack, the ants congregate at the same place they waited earlier, with the majors carrying the termites, and they return to the nest together!

Matabele ant, Pachycondyla analis

© Vaughan Jessnitz

Now something few people know about these ferocious ants is that they actively help each other during this battle against the termites, and look after their injured comrades! The termite soldiers are very good at defence, and are able to bite off the legs and antennas (and other appendages) of the ants, or even clamp onto the ant’s body after they die. These ants have evolved a unique mechanism to deal with this increased foraging cost.

After the battle, injured ants ‘call’ for help with a pheromone. This attracts its mates, who then start to investigate the injuries and pick it up to carry back to the nest! Inside the nest the clinging termites get removed. In the case where they lost one or two legs, the ants adapt to a four or five-legged locomotion to compensate for it, allowing them to reach running speeds similar to a healthy ant. These injured ants are then capable again of performing colony tasks and thus minimises the expense to the colony having to replace the injured workers with new ones!

They are actually the only invertebrate species known to show such behaviour towards injured individuals. With this aggressive, well-organised behaviour, it is no wonder these ants have been named after one of the most feared northern Ndebele tribes, the Matabele, who used to raid and destroy the southern kingdoms of Zimbabwe in the early 1800s.

Never mind the Big 5, lets focus on the little 5,000!

Matabele ant, Pachycondyla analis

© Vaughan Jessnitz



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