Meat Ants: The Amazing Kickboxers

Ants have amazed people for centuries and you can literally find them everywhere in the world. Today the ants we will be talking about are “Meat Ants

A picture to better elaborate meat ants

They are, the highly fearsome and dominant, ‘Meat Ants, also known scientifically as “Iridomyrmexpurpureus”, are endemic to mainland Australia. Mostly found in lightly wooded areas, andopen grasslands, from the coast, to the dry heart of the outback. They’re easily one of Australia’s mostwell known ant species, notorious for their extreme aggression and territorial nature,and their ability to form massive colonies. A single nest can be home to hundreds of thousands.

Eating Habits Of Meat Ants

Their common name of “Meat Ant’ comes about from their highly opportunistic foraging habits. They’ll actively consume almost anything they find. Including the flesh from dead vertebrates. Their sharp mandibles and strong muscularheads, allow them to deliver powerful bites, easily shredding through tough flesh, whereother ants may struggle. Like most ants, Meat Ants are omnivores. Meaning they eat both plants and other animals. However, despite their name, and fierce reputation,these ants primarily consume plant matter.

Most of which is collected up above ground within the surrounding trees and shrubs. Up here, they’ll actively consume nectar from the plants’ flowers, and also from specialised glands along their stems and leaves,known as ‘extrafloral nectaries’. These tiny glands slowly excrete a sugary richnectar which the Meat Ants find irresistible. They fiercely defend these sites from competitors,and will hunt down any nearby pests, like this caterpillar here, whom given the opportunity, would happily gorge itself on the plants’ fresh leaves. The ants harass the intruder from all sides… As a last-ditch effort, the caterpillar squirts out a noctous liquid seeking to distract the determined ants and slow their advance. It makes for a swift retreat. A lucky escape.

Occasionally, the ants’ presence can deter much larger animals too. A mouthful of leaves covered in a horde of angry biting meat ants isn’t very appealing to the Kangaroos as well. They’ll likely just search for a meal elsewhere. So the ants and the plants have a symbiotic relationship. The plants provide regular sustenance for the ants, and the ants inadvertently act as bodyguards for the plants. But the ants’ presence isn’t always a welcome sight. As they also share a similar relationship with some undesirable parasites.

Like leafhoppers here. Leafhoppers love to hang out on the plants’fresh leaf shoots and stems, extracting and consuming the sugary rich sap within. Periodically, these sap-suckers release excess waste from their rear ends, known as honeydew. And Meat ants absolutely love this hyper concentrated sugar, and will often climb to great heights, amongst the very tops of trees, to find it. Once found, they eagerly lap up the honeydew and aggressively defend its owner from birds and other bugs which seek to eat them.

This protection from the ants, results in large congregations of these sap-suckers, slowly degrading the plant as its robbed of vital nutrients. If left unchallenged, surrounding leaves begin to mottle and wilt, and future growth, deformed and stunted. So the plants have to carefully balance how much nectar they excrete so as to cater for the ants’ needs. Excrete too much, and they’re throwing away vital nutrients they need to grow and thrive; excrete too little, and their ant guardiansmay turn to the parasites for their sugary fix instead. Sugary carbohydrate rich foods, like nectarand honeydew, are what fuels the ants’ metabolisms, giving them vital energy to perform theirnumerous tasks throughout the day. One of the most important of which, nourishing their hungry young. Back within the ants’ nests, these little white pill shaped things reside.

Meat Ants’ Larvae

Residing in the nests are ant larvae, and their dietary requirements differ somewhat from the adult ants. They require more protein-rich meals to help them grow. For Meat Ants, this source of protein usually comes in the form of seeds and insects. Seeds are usually collected from the ground, fallen from the trees above. Meat ants tend to favor seeds that have these little stringy caps attached to them. This part of the seed is known as the elaiosome and is extremely desirable to the ants. They much resemble animal flesh in texture, with some species even mimicking its scent too.

Fun Fact:

Meat Ants also occasionally engage themselves in fighting with other meat ants colonies to resolve disputes

And much like animal flesh, elaiosomes are packed full of fat and amino acids. Just what the larvae need to thrive. Despite the powerful jaws of the Meat ants, it’s almost impossible for them to separate this fleshy substance from the seed itself. And so, the entire seed must be meticulously carried home. As Meat ants often travel long distances from their nests in search of food, this means they make for excellent seed dispersers. And given they aren’t overly interested in consuming the seeds themselves, once the larvae have consumed the elaiosomes, the seeds will usually remain intact within the safe, humid and nutrient-rich confines of the ants’nest.

So it’s a win win. The ants get a little meal, and in return,provide the seed with a perfect environment to germinate and spring to life. But of course, Meat ants don’t just run on seeds, and do very much live up to their name. From mealworms… To lizards… But rarely do Meat ants tackle live healthy prey, instead, they prefer to take on the injured and displaced. Using their great numbers to overwhelm and exhaust them into submission. But sometimes meat ants will risk it all for a meal. Yellow jackets can be one of the hinderences that meat ants might have to face on their journeys yellow jackets can make for a challenging foe. Even a crippled one can be deadly. Their huge heads are loaded with powerful muscle, easily capable of tearing a Meat ant in two. But the Meat ants are fearless, despite many casualties, they carry on until the bitter end. after, the battle is over, and the ants canreap their reward. As you can imagine, Meat ants are very possessiveof food.

Anything which tries to interfere are met with extreme aggression, and usually are intimidated into a quick retreat. Smaller ants, like these closely related rainbowants here, can occasionally get the better of them. Taking advantage of any lost or injured workers. But very few dares take them on under their terms. Sugar ants, are among these few. Just like meat ants, they’re fiercely competitive and are often found nesting within close proximity of them.

Meat Ants are diurnal, meaning they do most of their foraging during daylight. unlike some other ants like Sugar ants who are nocturnal

The two manage to coexist however, due to an important behavioral difference, they operate during different hours. Meat ants are diurnal, meaning they do most of their foraging during daylight. Whereas, sugar ants are primarily nocturnal,foraging under the cover of night, where they’ll use the Meat ants’ own trails to forage… tend to the very same family of leafhoppers… and also attempt to block up their nest entrances with surrounding rocks and twigs in order to hinder their daily activity. Usually the only time the two cross paths is briefly during dusk and dawn. Inevitably, clashes ensue. Although, the meat ants are much smaller in stature, sometimes they do engage in a tug of war of food with sugar ants and in some case, they make up for it in numbers and sheer determination. Outnumbered, and outmuscled, eventually the sugar ants concede their prize but this obviously is not always the case

Meat Ants Fighting

Occasionally the two rivals will also infiltrate each others nests, with the goal of stealing their brood in order to nourish their own. These raids are usually quite short-lived, quickly abandoned once defensive reinforcements arrive. but if met with little resistance, it may only end once one has entirely wiped out the other. Raiding all their brood and killing their queen. Like most ants, Meat Ants are highly competitive with other colonies of their same species. But unlike most ants, they’ve evolved asurprisingly civil way of resolving territorial disputes. When workers from two neighboring Meat Antcolonies cross paths, they measure up their counterparts, cautiously examining one another with their antennae, determining whether they are friend or foe.

If discovered they are indeed from separate colonies, they posture up their bodies, extending their legs and raising the tips of their abdomens. A rather odd looking pose known as ‘Stilting’. If the conflict hasn’t resolved at this point, using their forelegs, the ants begin to kickbox. It’s a test of strength and agility. The battle is quick, lasting only a few seconds. The winner of the bout will retain their stilled pose, tip-toeing around to proclaim their victory. Whilst the loser lowers their posture, leans their body away from the victor, and backs off. These bouts usually take place in small groups along the ants’ foraging trails. Clearly defining where the territorial bordersof two colonies meet.

The fighting can last hours as each colony attempts to push the opposing colony further and further back, to both limit their neighbor’s range and expand their own. This elaborate act of ritualized fighting ensures that confrontation over territory rarely results in the death or maiming of any ants. Encouraging the longevity of both colonies, and thus, promoting the survival of their species. The combination of meat ants vast numbers, and constant movement through the undergrowth, often results in a noticeable change in their surrounding landscape.

Over time, incredibly long, conspicuous trails are formed, branching off to valuable points of interest, like a mature flowering tree rich in nectar. Some trails can become so distinctive that you might mistake one to be made by a much larger animal like a rabbit, or even a manmade hiking trail. Just like any trail, they must be regularly maintained. Any debris and vegetation along the ants’ path are methodically cleared away by passers-by. Ensuring a super-efficient, easily commutable highway.

Follow these highways back far enough and you’ll reach the ants’ nest, where the queens and growing young reside. As you can see these nests can be huge, reaching several meters across. Dozens of entrances scatter their surface,each linking up to a network of elaborate tunnels and chambers, reaching as deep as3 meters into the ground.

Their mounds are usually quite flat, but what makes them stand out is the complete lack of vegetation, and the vast layer of gravel which often veils them. All of which has been methodically gathered up from the surrounding undergrowth. One granule at a time. Once the gravel mixes in and compacts with the loose soil beneath, it greatly strengthening their nest structure. Lessening the effects of erosion caused by harsh sunlight and heavy rainfall. Especially important for meat ants, given their fondness for nesting in open areas devoid of shade and protection from surrounding trees.

The reason Meat Ants choose to nest in such exposed areas is a simple one. They love the heat. Ants, along with all insects, and many other animals, like reptiles and most fish, are “cold blooded”, meaning the temperature of their bodies is entirely dependant upon their surrounding environment. A cold ant colony, means a slow unproductive ant colony.

Meat Ants’ Queen

So being positioned out in the open, where they can take full advantage of the sun’s warmth, means that meat ants are able to keep busy and productive all throughout the day. Resulting in an abundance of food being returned to their nests, nourishing their developing young, and allowing them to support huge populations. Deep below the nests’ surface sits the mother to them all. As you’d imagine, she’s treated like royalty. Her every need is vigilantly tended to herby her children. They feed her, keep her clean, raise her young,and guard her from danger. Her only job is to sit around laying eggs to ensure the future generations, and her legacy.

But it wasn’t always this way. Originally, a queen starts from very humble beginnings. They’re created by mature colonies and initially possess two pairs of wings, which, when the time comes, are used to perform their nuptial (mating) flight. On humid spring days, usually following arain storm, dozens of meat ant colonies eagerly send out all of their winged reproductive ants, and they apprehensively fly off in search of counterparts from foreign colonies. The males, quite distinctive from the females,with their tiny heads and wasp like bodies, drop to the ground after mating, and die soon after. Workers will swiftly arrive to collect them up so they can be fed back to their hungry larvae. Nothing goes to waste. The females, on the other hand, quickly shed their wings, and then, frantically search for an ideal place to found their colony.

Once found, they begin to dig. The recent rains makes the soil quite malleable,but for a single ant, it’s a difficult task nonetheless. Once their chamber is complete, they seal off the entrance, lay their first batch of eggs, and patiently tend to them until they hatch. To keep themselves going, they rely on fatreserves, and metabolised energy from their, now useless, wing muscles.

After weeks of patient caring, her brood eventually hatch. Bringing rise to a new colony of ants. But most queen ants aren’t so fortunate. Up until this point, they’re extremely vulnerable,making for a highly nutritious snack for predators, who can easily catch them out in the open, Or even underground too. Birds and echidnas will dig them up out of their newly constructed chambers. And often other ants will target them too. In her frantic search of a place to nest, this queen blundered across a dense trail of hungry rainbow ants, and was quickly overpowered. But meat ants have adopted some helpful strategies to increase their odds of success. Occasionally, when a queen lands nearby a closelyrelated colony, surrounding worker ants recognise their unique scent, and so, they adopt the newlymated queens as one of their own. Eagerly leading them back to the safety oftheir nest, perhaps even the same nest they originated from. To the workers, the safety of these youngqueens is of paramount importance, they desperately work at getting them underground and out ofsight as soon as possible.

Fun Fact

Meat Ants fight in as stance that looks similar to that of kickoboxing which can be quite intriguint to watch

Consequently, if the queens are discovereda little further from the nest and the distance is deemed too far and perilous to travel,the workers may even help the queens dig out a new chamber. Afterward, the workers often stick around, or cometo and from their main nest to help the young queen raise up her brood. Essentially, this new queen and nest, actas a satellite for the colony, greatly expanding their territory and accelerating their growth. Some Meat Ant colonies may control dozensof these satellite nests, all home to at least one queen. And each linking up with well-worn trails spanning hundreds of meters. Allowing the colony to command vast amountsof land and resources, and reach massive proportions, millions of ants strong… So that’s Meat Ants, they really are a fascinatingspecies. From their colossal nests and highways… To their cooperative means of founding colonies…

To their fierce ability to overwhelm their victims. To their civilised means of solvingterritorial disputes… It’s really no surprisethey’re such a dominant force here in Australia. And such an important force they are too. From their role as seed dispersers… To protecting plants from pests… To cycling immense amounts of soil… and decomposing dead invertebratesand vertebrates alike. They’re even known to go after the highlyinvasive, cane toads which have devastated many ecosystems here in Australia, as MeatAnts are completely immune to their usually deadly toxins, and have developed a fond tastefor their eggs.

Hopefully, this article was informative, and gave you some interesting insight about Meat ants as well as their unqiueness when it comes to insects. If you have any further related questions feel free to use the comment section below. Moreover, if you want to know an answer to whether insects seek and take revenge, we have a great article written on just that, you can give that a look “here“. And if you want to go through some interesting facts about insects, natgeokids has a great article written on that, you can give that a look “here

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