Falling In Style - Gliding Ants of the Peruvian Jungle

Cephalotes atratus, King of Controlled Aerial Decent

We all know of Buzz Lightyears unquestioned ability to fall in style, but he may have a new rival in the form of the Gliding Ants from Peru. Cephalotes atratus is a species found in the canopy of many neotropical forests, but it is no normal ant, because it exhibits this fascinating, almost magnetic attraction to glide back to the trunk of the tree from which it came.  It was a researcher from Berkely who noticed this, whilst sat in the canopy of the Iquitos jungle, when he brushed off a number of ants that were investigating his presence on their tree. That's when he noticed that rather than dropping like dead weight and randomly falling into the undergrowth, a group of ants soared and planed around the tree, until finally cascading back onto the original tree trunk.

Following further investigation, he discovered that they free-fall on average for 3 to 4 seconds whilst slowing their decent and locking onto the tree, orientating their flattened head, hind legs and abdomen like wings to make a rapid adjustment to point towards the home tree. Finally, the ant turns upside down and extends its claws on the legs at just the right moment to grab onto the trunk before impact. In real time this as impressive as it sounds, like a mesmerising J-shaped glide back to the tree,  which you can watch in this video:

This video was created to compare a non-gliding and a gliding ant, both dropped from a tree. Video courtesy of Steve Yanoviak.

So what is the evolutionary driving force behind this adaptation? Well, being blind, they communicate through the ability to sense and release pheromones.  As such, when they fall off a branch straight onto the jungle floor it is likely they would be unable to find the chemical pathway back to the colony leaving them lost, alone and vulnerable to predation.

Further, in the depths of rainy season the forest floor can quickly turn into a river, so any ant knocked off the tree due to strong winds or even a passing monkey would be quickly carried away by the current, becoming tasty fish food. There is even some evidence that the ants jump in desperate yet calculated attempts to flee their predators, which would make Cephalotes atratus one of the coolest ants around of the jungle (as if ants weren't cool enough already!)

I was lucky enough to encounter a few in the jungles of Manu National Park whilst working last year. In fact, one is the star of the little video "The Tasty Wood"! Check out the dark flat head, spiny back, rounded yet flat abdomen and long back legs, all tools for Controlled Aerial Decent, also known as "falling in style".

Nick, Oropendola Productions

South American Chronicles: Bandanas and Chainsaws

A sleepy prince

(If you haven’t already, click here to read the previous chapter)

The days passed, but no sign of Dante and Karina or more importantly food and gas. Once or twice a day, a boat sailed past Amaru Mayu. When these were going upstream, you could sometimes hear the roar of the engine before the boat became visible from our cabin. When that happened, we would all run to the terrace and wait with hope and a pinch of disillusion. As soon as the boat made its way around the corner of the mountain, ten to fifteen white/pink tourists would usually become visible, in spite of their full camouflage suits, pointing lenses longer than my arm at us, disappointed members of the same species. But apart from providing these brief moments of excitement, the absence of Dante and Karina meant we had no eggs, bananas nor bread. Which are basically the food staples when you live in the jungle, without a fridge. We weren't worried though, we had some reserves of rice, dry beans and yucca in the kitchen, which we knew could last us for a little while longer.

Occasionally, an odd character made his appearance in the camp. His name was David, quickly nicknamed Rambo, due to his habit of wearing a bandana and proudly sporting a testosterone fuelled perfectly sculpted body, whilst usually holding a chainsaw in one hand and a machete in the other. All this, whilst relentlessly chewing on coca leaves. He was macho, very macho, and he knew it. But he was also very quiet and made me wonder many times whether he was an incredibly wise man or just a very arrogant one. He hardly ever spoke to the others and definitely never spoke to us, but apparently he was a friend of Dante's and for this reason he would share his food with us. This in practice meant that he would appear in the camp every other morning with some freshly killed fish, cook himself some overly salted rice and then disappear with his chainsaw, to go and "maintain" the paths, leaving just the fish heads behind for us to eat. We would then probably not see him again until the following day, but we could hear the angry cry of his saw from most places in the reserve. We eventually nicknamed this "the sound of conservation".


Ruben, who managed to extract some information from him, told us he was a local, a "man of the forest". He worked for Dante, the reserve manager, and had been sent there on this occasion to look after us, the white men and women who can't look after themselves otherwise. We weren't too sure at first how to interpret this weird character and his huge chainsaw, but we didn't give it much importance and carried on with our work.

In those first few days, everything was a new and exciting discovery. Since Dante wasn't there, we decided we would spend all of our time getting the video and sound recordings for ourselves, trying to make the most of the few charged batteries we had left. We made our first encounters with capuchin and squirrel monkeys, got to know a few hairy caterpillars, dozens of butterflies and spent a huge portion of our time filming and recording the sound of the ubiquitous, but still wonderful and fascinating, leaf cutter ants. At night there wasn't much to do, apart from staring at the flame of a candle and discussing at length all the possible reasons, factual and fictional, as to why moths are the most suicidal of all creatures. This, and watching the Moon raise with dignity over the river Madre de Dios, brighter than any other Moon I had ever seen before.

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Just your average night landscape in the jungle!

 Greta, Oropendola Productions

South American Chronicles: Rubber Boots and Blunt Machetes

Amaru Mayu lodge

(If you haven't already, click here to read the previous chapter)

As we set foot on the shore, I found myself smiling like a 15th century explorer on his first arrival to a newly discovered land. The sun rays, shining through the thick vegetation, fragmented into tiny drops of light, were rolling on the ground and dancing around our feet. With little hesitation, we walked over what vaguely resembled a man-made staircase, made up of a few rocks and stones pressed against the slippery and muddy ground. A hundred meters in front of us was our cabin, a very simple building clinging to the rocks, overlooking the river, almost engulfed by the surrounding vegetation. Metal poles made its backbone and thin sheets of fibreboard acted as walls. Laid on top, looking old and slightly out of place, was a patch-work of corrugated and partially rusted metal sheets. They didn't look pretty, I'll have to admit, but their did serve their vital purpose as a roof, and protected us from the many torrential downpours in the month to come.

As soon as we approached the cabin, the three other volunteers staying at the camp came to meet us. These were Juan and Marta, a young Spanish couple from Madrid, and Ruben, a veterinarian gone photographer, who was also from Madrid.

It didn't take us long to explore the rest of the camp. Next to the cabin was a cooking area that looked like the entrance to a cave, carved into the rocky mountainside. The facilities, if you can call them so, were limited to a couple of large gas canisters connected to camping stoves, an old wooden table and some large plastic containers to store the food away from ants, wasps, bats and pretty much all other living things that were after it. Even though the place was quite simple and the most delicious food you could hope to eat was a fried egg, I have very fond memories of it. I grew to love cooking salted rice in the darkness, with the occasional water drop falling from the rocky ceiling onto my forehead, lit exclusively by the candles stuck into the rocks, surrounded by dancing moths and other night creatures.

The kitchen, with Juan, Marta and Ruben

Fifty meters downhill from where the kitchen and the cabin were, right next to the river, was the toilet, with only three walls and a breathtaking view over the water and forest beyond. If it wasn't for the occasional tailless whip scorpion crawling between your feet and the armies of fire ants quite literally chasing you away with their sharp pincers, they'd be with no doubt the best toilets in the world.

No one else was present at the camp. Dante, the manager of the reserve, was meant to arrive in a couple of days with Karina, and in the meanwhile we got given a half dozen eggs and two large breads to feed us as we waited for their arrival. We thought this was a good thing, as it would give us a couple of days to settle down and explore the area, before getting started with the real work, the filming and the sound recording.

On our first day, we went for a walk with Ruben, Juan and Marta, who had already been there for a few weeks and could show us the path. Rubber boots at our feet and blunt machetes in our hands, we begun the long and quite strenuous hike to the top of the mountain. The path was very poorly maintained and in parts it involved climbing over rocks, grabbing ferns not to slip in the mud and holding onto tree branches to lift your body over obstacles, praying you wouldn't accidentally disturb a bullet ant in the process. After a long hour climbing and stumbling, with barely any stops and in complete silence, we got to the top, drenched in sweat in ways I didn't know were even possible. The other three, quite clearly more adjusted to the hot and humid climate, looked vaguely more fresh than we did, but I can assure you there was none of the white linen suited British explorers you might have in mind from looking at pictures of young Attenborough in Madagascar.

Thick jungle, at the top of the mountain

The mountain top was a fairly large and flat area, the perimeter of which took more or less a couple of hours to navigate your way through. This interesting place, now covered in thick jungle, used to be a natural lagoon once. The lagoon filled itself with water during the rainy season and dried up slightly during the dry season, but a still fresh water mirror would always be there all year round, attracting huge numbers of animals and creating a naturally rich ecosystem. Fish would swim in its waters, attracting birds and caimans, as well as an incredible variety of insects, small mammals and large predators. What a wonderful hotspot of biodiversity it must have once been! Unfortunately a few years ago, when a particularly torrential rain fell over Amaru Mayu, the water levels raised too high and one of the natural dams surrounding the lagoon collapsed. Water started flowing down towards the river at the feet of the mountain and a natural waterfall was formed, almost completely draining the lagoon and reducing it to nothing more than a small swamp.

The area where the lagoon once was is today a beautiful patch of uncontaminated forest, still inhabited by monkeys, jaguars, more ant species than you could ever know or count and swarms of butterflies of obscure patterns and unthinkable colours. Still, every time I walked and explored that section of forest in the weeks to come, I couldn't help but think how much more beautiful and attractive that place must have once been and how simple it would be to block the water flow once again and allow the lagoon to slowly come back to life, again.

Maybe a project for my next visit...


Rhetus Periander and its staggering colours

Greta, Oropendola Productions

The Tasty Wood

If you like close up shots of ants, bees or freshly snapped wood then you are in luck,  this short clip is just for you! Ok, no, seriously, this was just a test we did to experiment with some sounds and footage we got from Peru, using Adobe Premiere Pro as editing suite. Although it is no masterpiece, there is something we both really liked about this particular sequence. Partly the ant, and the fact that it was such a solitary grazer, and partly the succulent log it was munching on, recently snapped and still wet from the rain. The way the sunlight danced over the golden wood, filtered through the canopy, made the whole scene seem almost staged, but I promise you it wasn't! We had originally been attracted to that log by the buzzing sound of a bee, which you can briefly spot in the sequence, with a full pollen sack on its leg, before noticing the lonely ant.

For the sound here we used a pair of small omni directional microphones and a modified contact microphone. See if you can hear the little footsteps of the ant or the crunch of the tasty wood.

If anybody knows what the species of ant is, please let us know as we are struggling to identify it. Thank you!

Nick & Greta, Oropendola Productions