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The Seychelles: An idiot's view of the forest

February 8, 2016

I'm comfortable with who I am. I know that I'm not really a normal person and I live an unusual lifestyle filled with travel and odd jobs. My interests are varied and I know a bit about a lot of things. But every once in a while, my dorkiness cannot be contained. Sometimes it happens quietly and a quick glance around confirms that no one has noticed the cracks in my facade. But then there are the slightly more embarrassing outbursts that are hard to laugh off and are sometimes a little too real. The other day I made a complete fool of myself on a hike but in my defense, if other people knew what I was looking at, they would have been just as excited.  

 

It was early in the walk, so our local guide was trying to get through his talk about the island and the little factoids he knows about this and that. Most of the time I'm at the back of the group, staying out of the way and generally trying not to bother the people who are paying money to be there. Since I don't really have a big camera with me and I'm trying to focus on my field sketching, my eyes are always looking around for a bird or some interesting wrap of a vine or something that might be my next subject. When in the forest it's sometimes easy to forget about the smaller players in the game, but I like bugs. I always have. And tropical forests are some of the most interesting places to find cool bugs. We had already seen giant orb weaving spiders high up in the trees but for the most part it's pretty quiet with insects here, probably owing to the HUGE population of Seychelles skinks. Yet there was a pretty large ant running around on the forest floor and since I find ants a fascinating organism, I leaned over to take a closer look. 

 

One of the coolest things about ants is that most of the colonial ants, not the primitive wasp-like ants of Australia, can be considered super organisms. An individual ant is nothing without its colony and will die. It's a crazy concept to animals like us ‘independent’ humans, but it's still fascinating to imagine a colony as individual and the ants acting almost like cells that serve the purpose of the organism (feeding, protecting, reproducing, etc). Anyways, ants are cool, so I did this little trick where you turn binoculars around backwards and they essentially become a portable microscope. You can make things huge and get very close to your subject. 

 

I found an ant that wasn't really darting around much and started to lean in to get it in focus. You have to get really, really close to the subject for it to be visible, but then once it happens it pretty much fills the frame. I could see that this ant had a large head for its body and then I noticed the important bit. What looked like maybe a piece of wood being carried turned out to be the jaws. Imagine an ant with a massive, muscular head and two i-beams as jaws, one sticking directly out to each side almost like a squat 'T'. I knew exactly what it was and so, like a huge nerd, I unconsciously exclaimed:

 

"TRAP JAW ANTS!!!"

 

The pivoting and shuffling of feet along the forest floor was about all I heard. Necks craned around and I think someone may have even slowly shook her head. It's a good thing it was hot out, because I think I was blushing and sweating. 

 

So there I am, hunched over in a weird position. Butt up. Head down. Staring through a pair of backwards binoculars and I just yelled something about an ant. Yet this isn't just any ant, this ant has one of, if not THE, fastest movement in the animal world. The jaws are held back with such powerful muscles that once they are slammed shut the ant will sometimes go airborne and bounce off the ground. It's like a walking bear trap just waiting to be triggered by some unsuspecting insect. How many times do you get to meet the superlative in the flesh? The fastest movement in the animal kingdom was running around at our feet and no one noticed. They aren't a particularly rare type of ant, but for all my time in the tropics I've never seen them, probably because of all the time I've spent underwater playing with other amazing animals. 

 

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