Monday, January 12, 2009

Decomposing on Guam

I love science. While in California my girls and I met weekly with two other women and their children for a home school cooperative science class. One year we studied biomes. If I remember correctly, I taught the unit on rainforests. What I remember most about that unit study was the fact that over 50% of the Earth's species live in tropical forests. Rainforests are home to more species of plants and animals than the rest of the world put together! Approximately 80% of all insect species live in tropical rainforests. Well, now that I LIVE in a tropical rainforest, I am here to testify to the infallible truth of this last statement. Ants serve as a case in point. When we lived in California, we would have a couple of "ant outbreaks" each summer. We would spray where the pests were entering the house and that would be that. Well, in Guam, I have concluded that in order to retain my sanity, I need to adjust my thinking around ants (and bugs in general). I have decided to share my kitchen with them. I think this attitude did not sit well with either my mother or my mother-in-law while they were visiting; however, they do not permanently reside in a rainforest, and therefore are incapable of understanding the logic behind my actions. Generally speaking, the ants in my kitchen are what I would call "carnivore ants." They are black and red (like the picture) and about the same size as California black ants. If I leave cake or cookies on the counter, they turn up their noses. But, if I am chopping chicken or frying beef, they come frenetically charging. The other day, we watched mesmerized as a team of these critters carried a dead centipede ten times their size up a wall in record time. They have eaten through the sealed bags of beef jerky sent to me in care packages and left nothing but a trace of the original contents. As long as I am vigilant about not leaving a hint of meat on my counters, they scavenge around my stove and sink in reasonable numbers and flaunt the fact that I am powerless to control them. They appear to be impervious to ant spray, bleach, vinegar, and other cleansers. They only bite me if they inadvertently get lodged in my clothing.

Now, on my computer hutch I have what I call "boonie (wild) ants." These are a royal pain. They are literally the size of a speck of dust and they bite me every chance they get. I think they may be omnivores--they eat anything (including humans). I am able to contain these, more or less, provided I keep my work area sanitized. This means cleaning and polishing the hutch, mopping the floors, and finally spraying the edges of the tile and hutch with bug spray every couple of weeks.

Then there's a kind of ant that is larger than a typical California ant and is so fast you essentially can't catch to kill with your finger. I'm assuming they don't bite because they seem to be so skittish that I can't imagine them purposefully making human contact. I'm not sure what they're after. They are generally on the floor of my bedroom and master bathroom. There is something about them that really irritates me. Maybe they seem like they are having too much fun. They almost appear to fly or ice skate on my white tile floor.

And, of course, there are the notorious, vicious fire ants. They are horrible and aggressive. Some are red and some are black. Their bites are terribly painful and inevitably, when they strike, a child will be crying. They swarm out of the earth when you least expect it, and pounce on your flip-flop clad feet. I scanned the Internet and found the following facts about tropical ants:

"And then there are the roving colonies. They are small colonies of ants with no permanent home. You never know where they will turn up. You might pick up a napkin that has been sitting on your table, and surprise! There they are! Queen, eggs, pupae, workers, soldiers and all. Everybody grabs the babies and starts running. They go in all directions and disappear while you stand there freaking out. Later, when the fuss has died down, they reassemble somewhere else. Like in your shoe."

"There are millions of different species of invertebrates living in rainforests. One scientist found 50 different species of ants on a single tree in Peru! [Are they sure it wasn't Guam?]

"Some ants squirt a stinky fluid at their enemies. The most dangerous and aggressive ants are "army ants" (they're blind), "driver ants" (from Africa), "fire ants" and the various stinging ants. Driver ants have reportedly killed a wounded elephant and stripped its bones clean."

Well, this last fact is what motivated this blog entry. On Monday evening, our cat, TJ, brought home the gift of a large dead rat (perhaps 8" long) which he left lying in the grass a few feet from our front door. On Tuesday morning, when Eric went outside to mow the lawn and deal with the dead rat, he discovered that NOTHING was left of the rat except a scant trace of bones and its outline in the grass! The ants (and other carnivore insects) of the rainforest had eaten every ounce of that rat in under 17 hours!!! Having grown up on a ranch, I've seen my share of dead rats, and I've also seen their carcasses lying in the fields slowly decaying for weeks. 17 hours and "poof," it was gone!! Now that would have been an astounding home school science experiment to show kids how quickly things decompose in the rainforest.


Duane and Karen said...

Amazing! Extremly interesting, and perhaps a reason we won't come for a visit. :) I saw the army ants in Uganda...we were told to GET AWAY. Everyone was heading to the falls on the Nile River and I was behind fascinated watching the army ants.

Judy (Rezents) Davies said...

That is amazing (very efficient!).
I actually did the unit on Rain Forests and am glad that you remembered some of the details--it must have been in the presentation! :)