Field Fiasco – Army Ants

When it comes to peeing in the wilderness, us men generally have it pretty easy. Yet, even with all of my natural advantages, I can tell you with certainty that trying to pee while balancing on one foot atop an unstable log, crouched beneath a low cover of prickly vines, and trying to fend off a swarm of biting insects is very, very difficult. How did I come by this particular bit of expertise? Well, as you might expect, it’s quite the story . . .

I had been working at the Ugalla Primate Project in the Issa Valley of Tanzania for about two months and was about to embark on my first “safari.” When most people from outside Tanzania hear “safari”, they envision a Land Rover and a beautiful drive through the Serengeti, but at camp it was just the Swahili word for “trip”. In this case, safari referred to a monthly excursion beyond the normal boundaries of our field site in search of chimpanzees. These safaris were no joke. For the safari in question, I joined two other field assistants, Busoti and Mlele, on a twenty-six kilometer hike to a creek where we would we would set up camp for three days. The terrain was mountainous, we had to carry all of our supplies in our packs, and—as neither Busoti nor Mlele spoke much English—I would have to rely on the Swahili I had learned in the past months. I should have been nervous, but I could barely contain my excitement as we checked our bags, took some photos, and set off into the forest.

Issa River Valley
The Issa River Valley during the dry season. You can see where the river flows because the trees nearby stay green year-round while the surrounding woodland browns and drops its leaves.

The hike itself was breathtaking. Literally – those mountain ridges kicked my butt. But the scenery didn’t disappoint either. The region is enriched by ever-green, riverine forests that follow the slope of the land as they wind through the dryer woodland habitat that predominates the mountains. Descending into the final valley of the trip, I could see these forests curl across a long stretch of flat land like emerald vipers before passing between two ridges shrouded by the distance. Proud of my accomplishment and high on the adventure, my mood as we neared our destination (and the water that it promised) could only be described as joyous. But when we got there, the creek was nowhere to be seen.

With empty water bottles and a dry creek bed, we suddenly had no idea where or when our trek would end. Guided by Mlele’s knowledge of the region and with no other options, we picked a direction and set off. Up to this point, our route had been planned; though not always on a trail, the terrain had been navigable. Now we were off course, hacking our way through long grass and crawling through brambles that seemed intractable. It was another grueling, thirsty hour before we found water. Hardly moving and tucked underneath a four foot high tangle of vines and branches, this was hardly the ideal water source, but it would have to serve. We pitched our tents beneath this hazardous ceiling, put some rice in the cooking pot, and as I crawled into my sleeping bag, exhausted, I thought the hardest part was over.

Trailblazing
After failing to find water where we expected, we had to search in some difficult to reach places. Here, Busoti blazes a trail through some tall grass.

I don’t know what time it was when I woke back up, I was aware only that my bladder was crying desperately for relief. I scrambled for my headlamp, but unable to find it in the dark I decided I could find my way to nature’s toilet without it and unzipped the door to my tent. That’s when heard it – a soft scraping sound like light static or scissors slicing through an endless sheet of wrapping paper. Siafu! These army ants swarm in the millions, using their giant mandibles to cut through any obstacle. I had, on several previous occasions, stumbled into such a swarm unaware. Each of these encounters resulted in a series of pained, high pitched yelps followed by a rapid stripping of clothes and an awkward, flailing dance as I tried to wipe my assailants off my legs while falling over my own pants. This time, I retreated back into my tent as quickly as possible, scrambling for my headlamp while trying to keep my unrelenting bladder under control.

Sad Tent
Camp certainly was not glamorous, though the low cover did make stringing up a tent cover convenient.

A few minutes later, with a collection of crushed insect invaders at my feet, I crouched, bouncing on my toes, and considered my options. The swarm could take hours to pass. I was mere moments from wetting myself: I would have to make a break for it. I took a deep breath, opened my door, and began my frantic dash. You might imagine a dramatic, powerful sprint across a carpet of moving darkness, but the vines overhead and poor footwear prevented anything so graceful. Imagine instead the Grinch attempting to steal Christmas, doubled over and high-stepping, but with some extra stumbling and the metallic sting of knee-to-nose contact. A small log about ten feet from my tent was my saving grace, and I crashed toward it, plucking ants as I went. With the grace of a newborn reindeer on ice-skates, I leapt onto the log with the one foot that would fit – back flat and arms outstretched like I was playing airplane to avoid the tangle above – and wobbled until I found my balance. Perched precariously as such on this island of safety, wearing only my underwear and a host of ants with jaws embedded in the flesh of my calves, I took aim at my enemies and finally found relief.

Author: Alexander is a second year in the Animal Behavior Program. He studies the evolution of spatial memory and navigation in primates and other mammals.

Source for cover photograph: https://goo.gl/images/Uq5ymy

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