Friday Fellow: Bullet ant

by Piter Kehoma Boll

The rainforests of Central and South America host this small but scary creature, the bullet ant Paraponera clavata. Feared by people living where it is found, the bullet ant is one of the most venomous ants in the world. The name “bullet ant” is a reference to the pain caused by being shot, which is said to be the closest analogy to the pain of a bullet ant sting. In Portuguese it is known as tocandira, a word derived from Tupi, meaning “hurting very much”. In Spanish it is sometimes called “hormiga 24 horas” because the pain is said to last a whole day.

A bullet ant worker. Photo by Geoff Gallice.*

A bullet ant worker. Photo by Geoff Gallice.*

The bullet ant is found in the Neotropical Ecozone from Honduras and Nicaragua to Paraguay. Their nests are built at the base of the trees, under the ground, and workers look for food mostly on the tree trunk and canopy directly above the nest and on nearby trees, sometimes exploring the forest floor. They are predatory ants, feeding mainly on arthropods, but also consuming nectar.

Considered a primitive ant, the bullet ant lacks polymorphism among the worker caste, i.e., all workers have the same general appearance. The queen is also not very different from the workers.

The horrible sting inflicted by these ants is used as a form of defence.  It contains a neurotoxin known as poneratoxin that causes paralysis by blocking synaptic transmission. It is effective against at least vertebrates and arthropods. Nevertheless, the Sateré-Mawé people from Brazil use the ants’ stings in a sadic ritual to become a “warrior”. For this purpose, a poor boy has to put his hand inside a glove filled with bullet ants and let it there for 10 minutes. As a result the boy’s arm becomes paralyzed for days and he may shake incontrollably due to the venom’s effect. And he has to repeat this ritual 20 times!

I can only think that humans… oh, never mind.

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Piek, T.; Duval, A.; Hue, B.; Karst, H.; Lapied, B.; Mantel, P.; Nakajima, T.; Pelhate, M.; Schmidt, J. O. 1991. Poneratoxin, a novel peptide neurotoxin from the venom of the ant, Paraponera clavata. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part C: Comparative Pharmacology, 99 (3): 487–495.

Wikipedia. Paraponera clavata. Availabe at: < >. Access on May 25, 2016.

Young, A. M.; Herrmann, H. R. 1980. Notes on foraging of the Giant Tropical Ant Paraponera clavata (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Ponerinae). Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society, 53 (1): 35–55.

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*Creative Commons License
This image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

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