What a mystery. Where did all my leafcutter ant colonies go? Of the twelve I've been tracking and filming every year since 2009 only one is left. This magical spot on the Osa Peninsula was a kingdom (I mean a queendom) of ants, an Atta version of the Roman Empire. The abundance of mature mango trees and a lip-smacking (mandible-munching), luscious clover ground cover had provided sustenance for a higher density of leafcutter ant colonies than I'd seen anywhere else. The plants are still here. The big ant colonies are not. What changed? It's usual for colonies to come and go. Most don't make it to the ripe old age of thirteen, the top lifespan of the queen and hence the colony. But, to survey colony after colony, of a variety of ages and sizes, and to discover them gone... that is unprecedented and unfortunate.
After a few more days of more detailed surveying I discovered several colonies so small they're difficult to spot. With only a few hundred ants and one tiny exit hole each, my guess is they're all the same age. Nuptial flights of fertile, winged males and females are coordinated and occur occasionally throughout the year. These colonies look to be from that same predawn ant orgy. The collapse of the area's larger and medium sized colonies will probably give these young colonies a better chance to reach maturity. But, that won't help me now. They have too few members to film.
One previously small colony, though, has grown significantly since my last trip and has inherited this exquisite patch of earth. The colony comes out at night (a bummer for me) and has a mere two-lane highway system, but at least the roadways are crowded with traffic. One line goes to a tree about ten yards away and the other to one about 100 yards in the opposite direction. It's an odd selection with so many choices recently made available. The logistics of filming at night is trying, to put it mildly, and it's when terciopelos, the deadly and plentiful pit vipers, deem it cool enough to come out and hunt. I guess I'll have to work in snake boots.
Tomorrow I'll start to build my set for the first image and see what this surviving colony can do. It's an ant test drive. I saw these Capuchins looking at me while I was looking for ants.