The Naturalist in Nicaragua, by Thomas Belt

Chapter 2.

Commence journey up San Juan river. Palms and wild canes. Plantations. The Colorado river. Proposed improvement of the river. Progress of the delta. Mosquitoes. Disagreeable night. Fine morning. Vegetation of the banks. Seripiqui river. Mot-mots. Foraging ants: their method of hunting. Ant-thrushes. They attack the nests of other ants. Birds’ nests, how preserved from them. Reasoning powers in ants. Parallel between the Mammalia and the Hymenoptera. Utopia.

I FOUND at Greytown the mail-boat of the Chontales Gold–Mining Company, which came down monthly in charge of Captain Anderson, an Englishman who had knocked about all over the world. The crew consisted of four Mosquito negroes, who are celebrated on this coast for their skill as boatmen. Besides the crew, we were taking three other negroes up to the mines, and with my boxes we were rather uncomfortably crowded for a long journey. The canoe itself was made from the trunk of a cedar-tree (Cedrela odorata). It had been hollowed out of a single log, and the sides afterwards built up higher with planking. This makes a very strong boat, the strength and thickness being where it is most required, at the bottom, to withstand the thumping about amongst the rocks of the rapids. I was once in one, coming down a dangerous rapid on the river Gurupy, in Northern Brazil, when we were driven with the full force of the boiling stream broadside upon a rock, with such force that we were nearly all thrown down, but the strong canoe was uninjured, although no common boat could have withstood the shock.

Having determined to go up the river in this boat, we took provisions with us for the voyage, and one of the negroes agreed to act as cook. Having arranged everything, and breakfasted with my kind friends, Mr. and Mrs. Hollenbeck, I bade them adieu, and settled myself into the small space in the canoe that I expected to occupy for six days. Captain Anderson took the helm, the “Caribs” dipped their paddles into the water, and away we glided into a narrow channel amongst long grass and rushes that almost touched us on either side. Greytown, with its neat white houses, and feathery palms, and large-leaved bread-fruit trees, was soon shut from our view, and our boatmen plying their paddles with the greatest dexterity and force, made the canoe shoot along through the still water. Soon we emerged into a wider channel where a stronger stream was running, and then we coasted along close to the shore to avoid the strength of the current. The banks at first were low and marshy and intersected by numerous channels; the principal tree was a long, coarse-leaved palm, and there were great beds of wild cane and grass, amongst which we occasionally saw curious green lizards, with leaf-like expansions (like those on the leaf-insects), assimilating them in appearance to the vegetation amongst which they sought their prey. As we proceeded up the river, the banks gradually became higher and drier, and we passed some small plantations of bananas and plantains made in clearings in the forest, which now consisted of a great variety of dicotyledonous trees with many tall, graceful palms; the undergrowth being ferns, small palms, Melastomae, Heliconiae, etc. The houses at the plantations were mostly miserable thatched huts with scarcely any furniture, the owners passing their time swinging in dirty hammocks, and occasionally taking down a canoe-load of plantains to Greytown for sale. It is one of the rarest sights to see any of these squatters at work. Their plantain patch and occasionally some fish from the river suffice to keep them alive and indolent.

At seven o’clock we reached the Colorado branch, which carries off the greater part of the waters of the San Juan to the sea. This is about twenty miles above Greytown, but only eighteen by the Colorado to the sea, and is near the head of the delta, as I have already mentioned. The main body of water formerly flowed down past Greytown, and kept the harbour there open, but a few years ago, during a heavy flood, the river greatly enlarged and deepened the entrance to the Colorado Channel, and since then year by year the Greytown harbour has been silting up. Now (I am writing in 1873) there is twelve feet of water on the bar at the Colorado in the height of the dry season, whilst at Greytown the outlet of the river is sometimes closed altogether. The merchants at Greytown have entertained the project of dredging out the channel again, but now that the river has found a nearer way to the sea by the Colorado this would be a herculean task, and it would cost much less money to move the whole town to the Colorado, where by dredging the bar a fine harbour might easily be made, but unfortunately the Colorado is in Costa Rica, the Greytown branch in Nicaragua, and there are constant bickerings between the two states respecting the outlet of this fine river, which make any well-considered scheme for the improvement of it impracticable at present. A sensible solution of the difficulty would be a federation of the two small republics. The heads of the political parties in the two countries see, however, in this a danger to their petty ambitions, and will not risk the step, and so the boundary question remains an open one, threatening at any moment to plunge the two countries into an impoverishing war.

If the Colorado were not to be interfered with by man, it would, in the course of ages, carry down great quantities of mud, sand, and trunks of trees, and gradually form sandbanks at its mouth, pushing out the delta further and further at this point, until it was greatly in advance of the rest of the coast; the river would then break through again by some nearer channel, and the Colorado would be silted up as the Lower San Juan is being at present. The numerous half filled-up channels and long lagoons throughout the delta show the various courses the river has at different times taken.

Our boatmen paddled on until nine o’clock, when we anchored in the middle of the stream, which was here about one hundred yards wide. Distant as we were from the shore, we were not too far for the mosquitoes, which came off in myriads to the banquet upon our blood. Sleep for me was impossible, and to add to the discomfort, the rain came down in torrents. We had an old tarpaulin with us, but it was full of holes, and let in the water in little streams, so that I was soon soaked to the skin. Altogether, with the streaming wet and the mosquitoes, it was one of the most uncomfortable nights I have ever passed.

The waning moon was sufficiently high at four o’clock to allow us to bring the long dreary night to an end, and to commence paddling up the river again. As the day broke the rain ceased, the mists cleared away, our spirits revived, and we forgot our discomforts of the night in admiration of the beauties of the river. The banks were hidden by a curtain of creeping and twining plants, many of which bore beautiful flowers, and the green was further varied here and there by the white stems of the cecropia trees. Now and then we passed more open spots, affording glimpses into the forest, where grew, in the dark shade, slender-stemmed palms and beautiful tree-ferns, contrasting with the great leaves of the Heliconiae. At seven we breakfasted on a sand-bank, and got our clothes and blankets dried. There were numerous tracks of alligators, but it was too early to look for their eggs in the sand; a month later, in March, when the river falls, they are found in abundance, and eaten by the canoe-men. At noon we reached the point where the Seripiqui, a river coming down from the interior of Costa Rica, joins the San Juan about thirty miles above Greytown. The Seripiqui is navigable by canoes for about twenty miles from this point, and then commences a rough mountain mule-track to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. We paddled on all the afternoon with little change in the river. At eight we anchored for the night, and although it rained heavily again, I was better prepared for it, and, coiling myself up under an umbrella beneath the tarpaulin, managed to sleep a little.

We started again before daylight, and at ten stopped at a small clearing for breakfast. I strolled back a little way into the gloomy forest, but it was not easy to get along on account of the undergrowth and numerous climbing plants that bound it together. I saw one of the large olive-green and brown mot-mots (Momotus martii), sitting upon a branch of a tree, moving its long curious tail from side to side, until it was nearly at right angles to its body. I afterwards saw other species in the forests and savannahs of Chontales. They all have several characters in common, linked together in a series of gradations. One of these features is a spot of black feathers on the breast. In some species this is edged with blue, in others, as in the one mentioned above, these black feathers form only a small black spot nearly hidden amongst the rust-coloured feathers of the breast. Characters such as these, very conspicuous in some species, shading off in others through various gradations to insignificance, if not extinction, are known by naturalists to occur in numerous genera; and so far they have only been explained on the supposition of the descent of the different species from a common progenitor.

Heads of Mot-Mots.

As I returned to the boat, I crossed a column of the army or foraging ants, many of them dragging along the legs and mangled bodies of insects that they had captured in their foray. I afterwards often encountered these ants in the forests and it may be convenient to place together all the facts I learnt respecting them.

Ecitons, or Foraging Ants. The Ecitons, or foraging ants, are very numerous throughout Central America. Whilst the leaf-cutting ants are entirely vegetable feeders, the foraging ants are hunters, and live solely on insects or other prey; and it is a curious analogy that, like the hunting races of mankind, they have to change their hunting-grounds when one is exhausted, and move on to another. In Nicaragua they are generally called “Army Ants.” One of the smaller species (Eciton predator) used occasionally to visit our house, swarm over the floors and walls, searching every cranny, and driving out the cockroaches and spiders, many of which were caught, pulled or bitten to pieces, and carried off. The individuals of this species are of various sizes; the smallest measuring one and a quarter lines, and the largest three lines, or a quarter of an inch.

I saw many large armies of this, or a closely allied species, in the forest. My attention was generally first called to them by the twittering of some small birds, belonging to several different species, that follow the ants in the woods. On approaching to ascertain the cause of this disturbance, a dense body of the ants, three or four yards wide, and so numerous as to blacken the ground, would be seen moving rapidly in one direction, examining every cranny, and underneath every fallen leaf. On the flanks, and in advance of the main body, smaller columns would be pushed out. These smaller columns would generally first flush the cockroaches, grasshoppers, and spiders. The pursued insects would rapidly make off, but many, in their confusion and terror, would bound right into the midst of the main body of ants. A grasshopper, finding itself in the midst of its enemies, would give vigorous leaps, with perhaps two or three of the ants clinging to its legs. Then it would stop a moment to rest, and that moment would be fatal, for the tiny foes would swarm over the prey, and after a few more ineffectual struggles it would succumb to its fate, and soon be bitten to pieces and carried off to the rear. The greatest catch of the ants was, however, when they got amongst some fallen brushwood. The cockroaches, spiders, and other insects, instead of running right away, would ascend the fallen branches and remain there, whilst the host of ants were occupying all the ground below. By and by up would come some of the ants, following every branch, and driving before them their prey to the ends of the small twigs, when nothing remained for them but to leap, and they would alight in the very throng of their foes, with the result of being certainly caught and pulled to pieces. Many of the spiders would escape by hanging suspended by a thread of silk from the branches, safe from the foes that swarmed both above and below.

I noticed that spiders were generally most intelligent in escaping, and did not, like the cockroaches and other insects, take shelter in the first hiding-place they found, only to be driven out again, or perhaps caught by the advancing army of ants. I have often seen large spiders making off many yards in advance, and apparently determined to put a good distance between themselves and their foe. I once saw one of the false spiders, or harvest-men (Phalangidae), standing in the midst of an army of ants, and with the greatest circumspection and coolness lifting, one after the other, its long legs, which supported its body above their reach. Sometimes as many as five out of its eight legs would be lifted at once, and whenever an ant approached one of those on which it stood, there was always a clear space within reach to put down another, so as to be able to hold up the threatened one out of danger.

I was much more surprised with the behaviour of a green, leaf-like locust. This insect stood immovably amongst a host of ants, many of which ran over its legs, without ever discovering there was food within their reach. So fixed was its instinctive knowledge that its safety depended on its immovability, that it allowed me to pick it up and replace it amongst the ants without making a single effort to escape. This species closely resembles a green leaf, and the other senses, which in the Ecitons appear to be more acute than that of sight, must have been completely deceived. It might easily have escaped from the ants by using its wings, but it would only have fallen into as great a danger, for the numerous birds that accompany the army ants are ever on the look out for any insect that may fly up, and the heavy flying locusts, grasshoppers, and cockroaches have no chance of escape. Several species of ant-thrushes always accompany the army ants in the forest. They do not, however, feed on the ants, but on the insects they disturb. Besides the ant-thrushes, trogons, creepers, and a variety of other birds, are often seen on the branches of trees above where an ant army is foraging below, pursuing and catching the insects that fly up.

The insects caught by the ants are dismembered, and their too bulky bodies bitten to pieces and carried off to the rear. Behind the army there are always small columns engaged on this duty. I have followed up these columns often; generally they led to dense masses of impenetrable brushwood, but twice they led me to cracks in the ground, down which the ants dragged their prey. These habitations are only temporary, for in a few days not an ant would be seen in the neighbourhood; all would have moved off to fresh hunting-grounds.

Another much larger species of foraging ant (Eciton hamata) hunts sometimes in dense armies, sometimes in columns, according to the prey it may be after. When in columns, I found that it was generally, if not always, in search of the nests of another ant (Hypoclinea sp.), which rear their young in holes in rotten trunks of fallen timber, and are very common in cleared places. The Ecitons hunt about in columns, which branch off in various directions. When a fallen log is reached, the column spreads out over it, searching through all the holes and cracks. The workers are of various sizes, and the smallest are here of use, for they squeeze themselves into the narrowest holes, and search out their prey in the furthest ramifications of the nests. When a nest of the Hypoclinea is attacked, the ants rush out, carrying the larvae and pupae in their jaws, only to be immediately despoiled of them by the Ecitons, which are running about in every direction with great swiftness. Whenever they come across a Hypoclinea carrying a larva or pupa, they capture the burden so quickly, that I could never ascertain exactly how it was done.

As soon as an Eciton gets hold of its prey, it rushes off back along the advancing column, which is composed of two sets, one hurrying forward, the other returning laden with their booty, but all and always in the greatest haste and apparent hurry. About the nest which they are harrying everything is confusion, Ecitons run here and there and everywhere in the greatest haste and disorder; but the result of all this apparent confusion is that scarcely a single Hypoclinea gets away with a pupa or larva. I never saw the Ecitons injure the Hypoclineas themselves, they were always contented with despoiling them of their young. The ant that is attacked is a very cowardly species, and never shows fight. I often found it running about sipping at the glands of leaves, or milking aphides, leaf-hoppers, or scale-insects that it found unattended by other ants. On the approach of another, though of a much smaller species, it would immediately run away. Probably this cowardly and un-antly deposition has caused it to become the prey of the Eciton. At any rate, I never saw the Ecitons attack the nest of other species.

The moving columns of Ecitons are composed almost entirely of workers of different sizes, but at intervals of two or three yards there are larger and lighter-coloured individuals that will often stop, and sometimes run a little backward, halting and touching some of the ants with their antennae. They look like officers giving orders and directing the march of the column.

This species is often met with in the forest, not in quest of one particular form of prey, but hunting, like Eciton predator, only spread out over a much greater space of ground. Crickets, grasshoppers, scorpions, centipedes, wood-lice, cockroaches, and spiders are driven out from below the fallen leaves and branches. Many of them are caught by the ants; others that get away are picked up by the numerous birds that accompany the ants, as vultures follow the armies of the East. The ants send off exploring parties up the trees, which hunt for nests of wasps, bees, and probably birds. If they find any, they soon communicate the intelligence to the army below, and a column is sent up immediately to take possession of the prize. I have seen them pulling out the larvae and pupae from the cells of a large wasp’s nest, whilst the wasps hovered about, powerless, before the multitude of the invaders, to render any protection to their young.

I have no doubt that many birds have acquired instincts to combat or avoid the great danger to which their young are exposed by the attacks of these and other ants. Trogons, parrots, toucans, mot-mots, and many other birds build in holes of trees or in the ground, and these, with their heads ever turned to the only entrance, are in the best possible position to pick off singly the scouts when they approach, thus effectually preventing them from carrying to the main army intelligence about the nest. Some of these birds, and especially the toucans, have bills beautifully adapted for picking up the ants before they reach the nest. Many of the smaller birds build on the branches of the bull’s-horn thorn, which is always thickly covered with small stinging honey-eating ants, that would not allow the Ecitons to ascend these trees.

Amongst the mammalia the opossums can convey their young out of danger in their pouches, and the females of many of the tree-rats and mice have a hard callosity near the teats, to which the young cling with their milk teeth, and can be dragged away by the mother to a place of safety.

The eyes in the Ecitons are very small, in some of the species imperfect, and in others entirely absent; in this they differ greatly from those ants which hunt singly, and which have the eyes greatly developed. The imperfection of eyesight in the Ecitons is an advantage to the community, and to their particular mode of hunting. It keeps them together, and prevents individual ants from starting off alone after objects that, if their eyesight were better, they might discover at a distance. The Ecitons and most other ants follow each other by scent, and, I believe, they can communicate the presence of danger, of booty, or other intelligence, to a distance by the different intensity or qualities of the odours given off. I one day saw a column of Eciton hamata running along the foot of a nearly perpendicular tramway cutting, the side of which was about six feet high. At one point I noticed a sort of assembly of about a dozen individuals that appeared in consultation. Suddenly one ant left the conclave, and ran with great speed up the perpendicular face of the cutting without stopping. It was followed by others, which, however, did not keep straight on like the first, but ran a short way, then returned, then again followed a little further than the first time. They were evidently scenting the trail of the pioneer, and making it permanently recognisable. These ants followed the exact line taken by the first one, although it was far out of sight. Wherever it had made a slight detour they did so likewise. I scraped with my knife a small portion of the clay on the trail, and the ants were completely at fault for a time which way to go. Those ascending and those descending stopped at the scraped portion, and made short circuits until they hit the scented trail again, when all their hesitation vanished, and they ran up and down it with the greatest confidence. On gaining the top of the cutting, the ants entered some brushwood suitable for hunting. In a very short space of time the information was communicated to the ants below, and a dense column rushed up to search for their prey.

The Ecitons are singular amongst the ants in this respect, that they have no fixed habitations, but move on from one place to another, as they exhaust the hunting grounds around them. I think Eciton hamata does not stay more than four or five days in one place. I have sometimes come across the migratory columns. They may easily be known by all the common workers moving in one direction, many of them carrying the larvae and pupae carefully in their jaws. Here and there one of the light-coloured officers moves backwards and forwards directing the columns. Such a column is of enormous length, and contains many thousands, if not millions of individuals. I have sometimes followed them up for two or three hundred yards without getting to the end.

They make their temporary habitations in hollow trees, and sometimes underneath large fallen trunks that offer suitable hollows. A nest that I came across in the latter situation was open at one side. The ants were clustered together in a dense mass, like a great swarm of bees, hanging from the roof, but reaching to the ground below. Their innumerable long legs looked like brown threads binding together the mass, which must have been at least a cubic yard in bulk, and contained hundreds of thousands of individuals, although many columns were outside, some bringing in the pupae of ants, others the legs and dissected bodies of various insects. I was surprised to see in this living nest tubular passages leading down to the centre of the mass, kept open just as if it had been formed of inorganic materials. Down these holes the ants who were bringing in booty passed with their prey. I thrust a long stick down to the centre of the cluster, and brought out clinging to it many ants holding larvae and pupae, which probably were kept warm by the crowding together of the ants. Besides the common dark-coloured workers and light-coloured officers, I saw here many still larger individuals with enormous jaws. These they go about holding wide open in a threatening manner, and I found, contrary to my expectation, that they could give a severe bite with them, and that it was difficult to withdraw the jaws from the skin again.

One day when watching a small column of these ants, I placed a little stone on one of the ants to secure it. The next that approached, as soon as it discovered the situation of the prisoner, ran backwards in an agitated manner, and communicated the intelligence to the others. They rushed to the rescue, some bit at the stone and tried to move it, others seized the captive by the legs, and tugged with such force that I thought the legs would be pulled off, but they persevered until they freed it. I next covered one up with a piece of clay, leaving only the ends of its antennae projecting. It was soon discovered by its fellows, which set to work immediately, and by biting off pieces of the clay, soon liberated it. Another time I found a very few of them passing along at intervals. I confined one of these under a piece of clay, at a little distance from the line, with his head projecting. Several ants passed it, but at last one discovered it and tried to pull it out, but could not. It immediately set off at a great rate, and I thought it had deserted its comrade, but it had only gone for assistance, for in a short time about a dozen ants came hurrying up, evidently fully informed of the circumstances of the case, for they made directly for their imprisoned comrade, and soon set him free. I do not see how this action could be instinctive. It was sympathetic help, such as man only among the higher mammalia shows. The excitement and ardour with which they carried on their unflagging exertions for the rescue of their comrade could not have been greater if they had been human beings, and this to meet a danger that can be only of the rarest occurrence. Amongst the ants of Central America I place the Eciton as the first in intelligence, and as such at the head of the Articulata. Wasps and bees come next to ants, and then others of the Hymenoptera. Between ants and the lower forms of insects there is a greater difference in reasoning powers than there is between man and the lowest mammalian. A recent writer has argued that of all animals ants approach nearest to man in their social condition.1 Perhaps if we could learn their wonderful language we should find that even in their mental condition they also rank next to humanity.

1 Houzeau, “Etudes sur les Facultes mentales des Animaux comparees a celles de l’Homme.”

I shall relate two more instances of the use of a reasoning faculty in these ants. I once saw a wide column trying to pass along a crumbling, nearly perpendicular, slope. They would have got very slowly over it, and many of them would have fallen, but a number having secured their hold, and reaching to each other, remained stationary, and over them the main column passed. Another time they were crossing a water-course along a small branch, not thicker than a goose-quill. They widened this natural bridge to three times its width by a number of ants clinging to it and to each other on each side, over which the column passed three or four deep. Except for this expedient they would have had to pass over in single file, and treble the time would have been consumed. Can it not be contended that such insects are able to determine by reasoning powers which is the best way of doing a thing, and that their actions are guided by thought and reflection? This view is much strengthened by the fact that the cerebral ganglia in ants are more developed than in any other insect, and that in all the Hymenoptera, at the head of which they stand, “they are many times larger than in the less intelligent orders, such as beetles.”1

1 Darwin, “Descent of Man” volume 1 page 145.

The Hymenoptera standing at the head of the Articulata, and the Mammalia at the head of the Vertebrata, it is curious to mark how, in geological history, the appearance and development of these two orders (culminating, one in the Ants; the other in the Primates) run parallel. The Hymenoptera and the Mammalia both make their first appearance early in the secondary period, and it is not until the commencement of the tertiary epoch that ants and monkeys appear upon the scene. There the parallel ends. No one species of ant has attained any great superiority above all its fellows, whilst man is very far in advance of all the other Primates.

When we see these intelligent insects dwelling together in orderly communities of many thousands of individuals, their social instincts developed to a high degree of perfection, making their marches with the regularity of disciplined troops, showing ingenuity in the crossing of difficult places, assisting each other in danger, defending their nests at the risk of their own lives, communicating information rapidly to a great distance, making a regular division of work, the whole community taking charge of the rearing of the young, and all imbued with the strongest sense of industry, each individual labouring not for itself alone but also for its fellows — we may imagine that Sir Thomas More’s description of Utopia might have been applied with greater justice to such a community than to any human society. “But in Utopia, where every man has a right to everything, they do all know that if care is taken to keep the public stores full, no private man can want anything; for among them there is no unequal distribution, so that no man is poor, nor in any necessity, and though no man has anything, yet they are all rich; for what can make a man so rich as to lead a serene and cheerful life, free from anxieties, neither apprehending want himself, nor vexed with the endless complaints of his wife? He is not afraid of the misery of his children, nor is he contriving how to raise a portion for his daughters, but is secure in this, that both he and his wife, his children and grandchildren, to as many generations as he can fancy, will all live both plentifully and happily.”

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32