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Encounter with Isula Ant (Paraponera clavata)

Listed under Wildlife in Peru.

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  • Photo of Encounter with Isula Ant (Paraponera clavata)
Photo of Encounter with Isula Ant (Paraponera clavata)
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Siegfried regarded me through a mask of terror. "Please don't kill me," he begged. He was a gregarious client. He was also a brave man, an East German who had escaped by scaling the Berlin Wall under a barrage of gunfire. Just that morning he’d told me that his main motivation for flight was to be free to visit the Amazon rainforest, something not possible for a citizen from the Communist bloc. Having a great adventure in the jungle had been his dream since boyhood. I felt honored to be his guide. Now, in the space of an instant, his dream had morphed into a nightmare. And I was the cause of it all.

Or at least, that’s how Siegfried saw it. What he hadn’t seen was the cause of my inexplicable, seemingly threatening behavior. His dread of me was so blackly humorous, that even through the burning pain in my eye, I had to laugh. I plopped down on the soft root mat beside him, exhausted after chasing him through dense jungle growth for the last half hour. "Don't worry, my friend, I mean you no harm. I only wished to get your attention." Finally, I had his wide-eyed, complete attention.

I had been hacking a trail through the forest with my 28 inch steel machete, leading Siegfried to a Brazil nut tree frequented by colorful macaws. I must have brushed against some leaf, depositing a large, black ant called isula (Paraponera clavata) on my forehead. Though only an insect, the isula is one of the true terrors of the Amazon. They have a retractable abdominal stinger whose sole purpose is to inject neurotoxic venom. Get in its way and it will grab hold with its pincers and pump you full of poison. The pain caused by a single sting has been estimated to be more than 30 times as powerful as the worst wasp. The sting from a single ant can give you a fever that lasts 24 hours. Stumble across a colony and you risk death.

At nearly an inch and a half in length, isula are the largest ant in the world. They are popularly known as “bullet” ants, because their painful sting packs the punch of being shot by a bullet. They appear as large, black, wingless wasps, typically foraging solitary through the forest, hunting for something to kill and bring back to the colony, which like most social insects, is headed by a queen. One typically finds isula climbing on trees and plants, effortlessly toting beetle heads, leafhopper thoraxes and even frog legs, from their recently dismembered victims. I never had to warn my tourists about contact with isula. One look at this huge bad-ass ant strutting through the forest instantly conveyed respect.

And now a large isula was impaled in the soft skin just above my right eye. The pain of having venom injected so close to my eye was simply excruciating. My first thought was, "Oh great, now will I be blind in my eye?" Fighting to keep my composure, I wheeled around to politely request some assistance from Siegfried. I then let loose with a howl of pain and began waving my 28 inch razor sharp machete in the air for emphasis. Viewing the scene with my left eye, I saw Siegfried recoil in horror, turn on his heels and take off running. In the jungle one must walk with great care. This way you avoid contact with poisonous snakes, thorny plants and even roots and vines that reach out to trip you. Running in the jungle is a bad idea, especially for inexperienced tourists.

Siegfried not only was running at full throttle, but he had now veered off of my carefully hewn trail. Losing one's bearings is easy in the lowland Amazon forest, where you are surrounded by tall trees and dense undergrowth in an area with no obvious landmarks. Getting lost in the jungle is another bad idea. Keeping sight of Siegfried with my left eye, I chased after him, screaming at him to stop. When he saw me close in he doubled his pace. I feared losing sight of him for good. But the rainforest's humidity ultimately drained him and he collapsed, resigned to his fate.

Calmed by the explanation of the cause of my actions, Siegfried relaxed and kindly washed my eyeball with his canteen water. The local pain had subsided, but I was still feeling a little woozy. We decided to enjoy the forest awhile from a sitting position. Once again buddies, we engaged in amiable chitchat.

Written by  Paul Beaver.

Comments, reviews and questions by other travellers

GREAT STORY!

One of those bastards just bit me just this week. It only consequenced by mere pain in both bitten spots (upper back and hand) that lasted throughout the day. Whereas a friend of mine who was bitten the following day was suffering almost 3 days of allergic reaction.

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