Army ants are dangerous, just not to the extent of what they’ve been portrayed to be in pop culture. While possible, army ants aren’t generally capable of fully swarming and devouring human beings in real life.
They can however, be dangerous to smaller animals such as other insects, worms, lizards, frogs, and sometimes even birds.
In this article we’ll discover why army ants have developed a reputation of destroying every plant and animal life in their paths as we discuss why they’re dangerous and determine if they can kill humans. Before that however, what exactly are army ants?
What Are Army Ants?
The term army ant refers to over 200 species of highly aggressive predatory ants coming from different genera. These ants are mostly known for forming large foraging groups which simultaneously forage or raid certain areas. Moving in columns, they swarm and attack every prey they encounter. Hence, their reputation for causing destruction.
Aside from that, army ants are also nomadic, meaning army ant colonies don’t construct permanent nests. Instead, they use bivouacs, temporary nests they create by clinging onto each other using specialized tarsal hooks and forming a mass that covers and protects the queen and her brood.
When it’s time to move, the ants simply let go of each other’s legs to dissolve the bivouacs back into raiding columns.
Why Are Army Ants Dangerous?
Army ants are dangerous as they’re naturally equipped with physical weapons. For instance, army ants have powerful scissor-like jaws called mandibles which they use to tear down their prey. Then as if these mandibles weren’t strong enough, some army ant species have a soldier class among workers.
These soldiers are stronger and larger than the typical worker. They have larger heads and in turn also have much larger mandibles designed to capture, cut or crush, and carry prey much bigger than what the typical army ant worker can handle.
Aside from their mandibles, some army ants also have stingers. These stingers allow them to subdue and kill larger prey like snakes, lizards, and larger vertebrates like birds through asphyxiation. That said, these stingers are rarely used as army ants tend to prefer dismembering their prey with their mandibles instead.
More than their weapons, army ants are dangerous because of their foraging behavior. Again, when army ants forage, they form large groups that simultaneously raid an area. Think of an army with only destruction in mind rushing towards you.
There’s no negotiating with army ants. When they set out to forage, they do so with the intent of using their physical weapons to indiscriminately swarm, attack, and kill any prey they encounter.
Can Army Ants Kill Humans?
It is highly unlikely for army ants to kill humans. While army ants are relatively fast when compared to other invertebrates, they simply can’t keep up with us.
Army ant columns usually move at a speed of around 10 to 20 meters per hour (32.8 – 65.6 ft/hr). That’s equivalent to around 0.2 inches per second. So unless we suddenly start moving slower than that speed, then we can actually just walk away and be safe from these aggressive predators.
Also, even if they were faster, they don’t usually come into contact with people anyway.
With all that said, it certainly is possible for them to kill humans. Army ants can be dangerous to infants, the elderly, or inebriated people. In fact, a few cases of human deaths (inebriated or infant) have been reported.
Furthermore, in the old times, driver ants, a group of army ants from the genus Dorylus, were said to be used in punishing criminals. According to the nineteenth-century explorer Paul Du Chaillu, criminals were exposed to swarms of driver ants as a cruel and painful form of execution.
Benefits Of Army Ants
For example, some species of birds are known to develop parasitic relationships with army ants. These birds, known as antbirds, follow along with army ant columns to opportunistically feed on arthropods and other animals displaced by army ant raids.
Similar interactions occur with some vertebrates like marmosets, toads, and lizards, which may sometimes even steal captured prey that army ants carry. Other animals or parasites that rely on army ants include mites, beetles, flies, and other arthropods.
Apart from all these animals, army ants have also proved to be beneficial to humans. In some communities, army ants are used to control crop-pests such as other insects and rats. They are also sometimes used as natural sutures as their naturally strong bites can seal a wound shut for a good amount of days.
Summary: Are Army Ants Dangerous?
To summarize, army ants are dangerous but typically only to their natural prey. As highly aggressive predators, army ants are bad news to a number of different animals including other ants, worms, lizards, frogs, and even birds.
When it comes to humans however, army ants aren’t exactly much of a threat. They don’t encounter humans often, and when they do, they’re too slow to keep up.
That said, they can be dangerous to humans that cannot move away. Infants, the elderly, and inebriated people can be at risk of dying to these army ants. In fact, there have already been reports of army ant deaths.