The study of ants is termed myrmecology. Ants are invertebrates, a group of creatures with no backbones. They do have exoskeletons, external skeletons that provide them with flexibility and strength. More than 2,000 ant species from all parts of Africa have been catalogued and described by entomologists, according to Brian Taylor, Ph.D. of the University of Nottingham. Africa is home to such a diverse variety of ants that one article can only give examples of some of the fascinating ants from Africa’s many regions and climate zones.
Kenya, located in East Africa, is home to approximately 12 ant subfamilies, within which 573 species have been identified. The largest Kenyan subfamily is the Myrmicinae, a subfamily of ants, such as Harvester ants, living on the savannah in sub-Saharan Africa. The Formicinae, another large subfamily, includes weaver ants, who create nests by weaving leaves together with silk from their larva. Rain forests in western Africa house more than 300 ant species, and a recently discovered species of leaf-litter ants, endemic to the Kakamega rain forest -- one of the last indigenous forests in Kenya -- are unique to this location.
More than 96 percent of Madagascar's 418 identified ant species and subspecies are endemic to Madagascar and its coastal islands. Scientific fieldwork since 2000 suggests that approximately two-thirds of Madagascar ant species have not even been described. Species of ants recently discovered in Madagascar include colonies of cannibalistic ants known as Madagascar Dracula ants. Scientists studying these ants are beginning to understand the evolution of ants from wasps, in part because Dracula ants have wasp-like abdomens with a single connection between their thorax and abdomen, unlike the multiple joints of other ant species. Madagascar Dracula ants display macabre feeding habits, such as cutting holes into their own larvae to nourish themselves by sucking hemolymph, colorless and nutritious insect blood.
South African Ants
Approximately a thousand species of ants live in South Africa, but only about half of them have common names, such as pharaoh ants, fire ants and African thief ants. Crematogaster guard ants and whistling thorny acacia trees in South Africa have formed a symbiotic relationship. These stinging ants hollow out the soft thorns of whistling thorn acacias to create their homes and to protect the acacias. Elephants, giraffes and other herbivores eat foliage and bark from other thorny acacia trees, but they learn to leave the whistling thorn alone. When herbivores attempt to eat this acacia’s leaves or strip the tree's bark, they end up with a mouthful of stinging ants. In return, nectaries on the tips of this acacia's leaves produce sweet secretions to feed the ants.
The stink ant is found in the rain forests of Cameroon in West Central Africa, where it hunts for food among the fallen leaves and undergrowth of the nutrient-rich rain forest floor. Occasionally, an ant inhales a fungal spore that causes its behavior to change, so much so that as the fungus grows, this ground dwelling ant is compelled to climb up a tree until it reaches a height midway between the forest floor and the canopy. Trying not to fall, the exhausted and confused ant proceeds to bite down on the leaf’s vein before dying. The fungus then sprouts from the dead ant’s head and produces spores that fall to the forest floor to be inhaled by other ants.
- Ants of Africa: Catalogue Notes on All Ant Species Described From Sub-Saharan Africa
- AntWeb: Kenya Ants
- Bonn Zoological Bulletin: Tetramorium boehmei sp. n. – A New Ant (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) Species From the Kakamega Forest, Western Kenya
- Bonn Zoological Bulletin: Tetramorium Boehmei sp. n. – A New Ant (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) Species From the Kakamega Forest, Western Kenya
- California Academy of Sciences: Dracula Ants - The Missing Link
- ABC News: 'Dracula Ants' May Be Evolutionary Link
- Wayne's Word: Whistling Thorn Acacia Of South Africa
- Fungus Makes Zombie Ants Do All the Work
Maura Wolf's published online articles focus on women, children, parenting, non-traditional families, companion animals and mental health. A licensed psychotherapist since 2000, Wolf counsels individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, body image, parenting, aging and LGBTQ issues. Wolf has two Master of Arts degrees: in English, from San Francisco State University and in clinical psychology, from New College.