Ants: Walking Wallendas in My Garden

Acrobat Ants (Crematogaster) at the Bidens buffet

Acrobat Ants (Crematogaster) at the Bidens buffet

There are all sorts of ants and I was drawn to a group that was hanging out on a leaf of Bidens alba, a Florida native plant that is a bundle of biodiversity.  This group of ants was like none I had ever seen before.  Medium sized, shiny and with a heart shaped abdomen. What I found more interesting is that it was a reasonable gathering of say 50 or so, not thousands as I would normally expect of ant conventions.

They were engrossed in eating some white looking glop, the color resembling Elmer’s glue gone bad.  A lone fly was off to the side, standing watch.  I snapped a few photos to see if a closer look via zoom would tell me what was so fascinating as to draw this crowd.

Is the fly guarding the group? or is he trying to figure out how to sneak in

Is the fly guarding the group? or is he trying to figure out how to sneak in

I learned these valentine looking scavengers are called Acrobat Ants. They are in the Genus Crematogaster.  I’m not ready to get these guys down to the species level with 10 different species in Florida that look rather alike to me.  I got itchy just looking for Genus.

Is the fly waiting in line?

Is the fly sick of waiting?

The habit of bending the gaster up over the thorax when disturbed is likely how it got the common name Acrobat Ant. The worker looks a little like he’s walking on his hands, so to speak.

Food for Acrobat Ants include

“honeydew, extrafloral nectar, scavenged protein from bird and other droppings, carrion”

Even a close zoom look didn’t reveal what the glop was but based on the listed foods, I figured it must have been bird poop.

The next day I returned to the scene of the crime and all the ants were gone, as was the fly.  There, on the leaf was a tiny spine bone.

Okay, what the heck is this?

Okay, what the heck is this?

My first thought was to dial up Dr. Temperance Brennan.  Of course she’s a fictional anthropologist and these bones seemed way too small to be human, so I opted to use an Internet search engine.  “T-i-n-y V-e-r-t-e-b-r-a-t-e” I tapped into the search box. Up popped some news results about a certain frog being the world’s smallest vertebrate.

I recalled seeing a lot of the juvenile invasive Cuban treefrogs in recent weeks, so I thought that frog might fit the bill.  Next search:  F-r-o-g S-k-e-l-e-t-o-n.  Up popped a very nice image of a labeled bullfrog skeleton.

Eureka!!!!  The vertebrae matched my find.  And, the small pointy piece is a urostyle.  And to think I failed biology.  Look at me now Ms. BiologyTeacherWho’sNameIForgot.

the remaining vertebrae and urostyle made identification pretty easy

the remaining vertebrae and urostyle made identification pretty easy

I wonder where the rest of the frog bones went.  Did the acrobat ants bury the evidence?  Who did the actual killing? Was the fly merely a witness? Or did he have a role in this massacre? Well, I’m no “Bones”, so it shall remain a mystery.

AntsFlyJuly2013At any rate, acrobat ants play a role in carrion cleanup, like vultures but on a smaller scale.  And, I’ve learned that they are an important food resource for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker:

“C. ashmeadi workers make up the majority of this woodpecker’s adult diet”

It seems that Acrobat ants are found in damp or rotting wood so they aren’t as big a house pest as many other ant species.  They may even cue you in to water infiltration problems if you find them in your home. Another interesting new species to add to my buggy life list.

© 2013, Loret T. Setters. All rights reserved. This article is the property of BeautifulWildlifeGarden.com We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. says

    Very interesting, and cool photos.

    Does a bullfrog have a spine this small, or do you think it was a juvenile bullfrog? I don’t think a leaf could support an adult bullfrog dead or alive. It’s also odd that a frog would die out in the open, on a leaf. According to Lewis Thomas in his book “Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher,” most animals go into hiding to die, which is why we don’t often see the dead about, except along roads.

    I love the images of the observant fly. Who knows what was going through her mind? I am guessing she was waiting to have a place at the “table.”

  2. says

    Great post. Nice find with the small backbone, too. I suppose the smaller bones may also just have fallen off the leaf due to wind currents.

    I found a similar situation recently, but I was lucky enough to be able to identify the animal being consumed by looking at my photo when I took it off the camera and uploaded it – it was a wheel bug. As soon as I get my computer back from the repair shop (I’m borrowing my husband’s right now, but my photos are on my computer), I’ll be uploading it too.

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