Worlds Collide

Across the eastern coast of the Black Sea, through the foothills of the Southern Caucasus Mountains one of the world’s greatest natural spectacles takes place. 

Over a million birds of prey pass through a narrow bottleneck in Georgia. Below them, scientists and birders eagerly watch and record the skies whilst local traditions send showers of bullets and nets snapping in their direction. Working with the BRC, Oropendola Productions  are producing a documentary on this over the coming months

We are currently making plans to return for the 2017 migration in order to complete the story and show the trailer at the Batumi Bird Festival.

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

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