Chimps, Gorillas and Ants

Once again, our post today is inspired by a book, in this case two children’s books about Jane Goodall and her research. I’m reviewed the books at Wrapped in Foil and wrote about Jane Goodall’s early scientific career at Growing With Science.

In 1960, the famous primatologist Jane Goodall recorded an amazing event. She observed a chimpanzee poke a blade of grass into a termite mound. The termites clamped themselves to the grass in an effort to protect their colony from the intruder. After a short time the chimp pulled the grass back out and ate the insects clinging to it. Goodall’s observations were the first recorded evidence of an animal other than a human using a tool.

But what does this have to do with ants? Since her discovery, Jane Goodall and many others have watched chimps eating ants as well. One way a chimpanzee gathers ants to eat is using sticks or pieces of grass to probe nests of ants. First a chimpanzee opens the nest a bit by digging with its hands. Then the chimp pokes a stick into the opening. The furious ants bite the offending stick in an effort to defend their colony. The chimp then draws the stick out loaded with ants. The chimp either shoves the stick directly into its mouth to eat the ants, or removes the ants with its hand and pops them into its mouth like popcorn. What a yummy snack!

The second way a chimpanzee gathers ants is to pluck a nest of weaver ants from a tree. Weaver ants form nests by tying leaves together with the silk produced by larval ants. Although weaver ants lack a stinger, they do have a painful bite. To avoid the bites of the ants, the chimp quickly runs from the tree with the nest and then crushes it on the ground, preventing any stray workers from biting. Once crushed, the chimp simply pulls the nest apart and eats the flattened ants at its leisure.

What about another African primate, the gorilla? At first many researchers thought gorillas were strictly vegetarian, but then evidence began to mount that they also enjoy munching on ants, very smelly evidence. It turns out that the best way to check what gorillas are eating is to find their feces or dung, and look at what is inside, including ant remains. The studies showed that some groups of gorillas ate quite a few ants during certain times of the year. Gorillas have also been observed and filmed eating ants. They don’t just consume the ants accidentally while eating plants. No one knows for sure why gorillas eat ants, but probably the same reasons other animals do, to obtain certain nutrients or possibly as a form of medicine.

Edit: I forgot I had this link to a video of a weaver ant nest (also called green ants).