A employee specimen of Aphaenogaster
, a Madagascan species of funnel ant (© –
CC BY 4.0 licence)

Whereas these days perusing on-line some 19th-Century
again numbers of the Antananarivo Annual
and Madagascar Journal
(a yearly periodical that has proved very fruitful
in offering me with fascinating however hitherto-obscure,
cryptozoologically-unreported materials regarding Malagasy thriller beasts of
many sorts), I chanced upon a very weird report relating to ants and snakes
that so far as I’m conscious has not been beforehand blogged about on-line.

Showing on this periodical’s Christmas
1875 concern, it consisted of the next account, from an article written by
Madagascan traveller/clergyman Rev. H.W. Grainge and entitled ‘Journal of a
go to to Mojanga and the north-west coast’:

We additionally observed about this half
numerous earthen mounds, various from one to 2 and a half ft in
peak; these had been the nest of a big ant credited by the lads with unusual
sagacity. We had been advised that they make common snake traps within the decrease a part of
these nests; straightforward sufficient for the snake to enter, however not possible for it to get
out of. When one is caught the ants
are stated to deal with it with nice care, bringing it an considerable and common
provide of meals, till it turns into fats sufficient for his or her function; after which, accor­ding
to native perception, it’s killed and eaten by them.

(Mojanga is these days often known as Mahajanga, or Majunga in French –
Madagascar is a former French colony; these names are utilized to a metropolis and
administrative district on Madagascar’s northwest coast.) 


Classic {photograph} of wilderness at Mojanga in the course of the early 20th
Century (public area)

Rev. Grainge’s macabre little vignette
attracted the eye of a reader named R. Toy, who duly quoted it precisely a
12 months later, within the Christmas 1876 concern of the Antananarivo Annual and Madagascar Journal, after which appended his
personal equally fascinating firsthand experiences regarding this very curious

It might be fascinating if some missionary dwelling within the nation
would take a look at the truth of this reputed truth by digging open a number of of those
nests. There isn’t a doubt however that the assumption is most common among the many
natives. I’ve been assured most confidently time and again that it’s a
undeniable fact that snakes are stored and fattened by the ants as above described; and
realizing the sagacity of ants, and the care they absorb feeding the aphides for
the sake of their honey, one wouldn’t rapidly put aside the assertion, so
typically accepted by the natives, as devoid of fact.

For sure, simply because a perception is
extensively accepted doesn’t essentially make it true, because the very extensively accepted
but wholly fallacious perception in hoop snakes, as an illustration, readily
demonstrates. Equally, nevertheless, as famous by Toy, the farming and milking of
aphids by ants for his or her candy secretions is nicely documented scientifically. So
too is their rearing inside their nests of the caterpillars of the big blue Phengaris arion, a Eurasian species of
lycaenid butterfly.


(Though on this latter occasion, the ants
are the unsuspecting victims of a lepidopteran model of brood parasitism,
with the big blue’s caterpillars truly appearing as predators after having
tricked the ants through morphological and pheromonal mimicry ways into carrying
them inside their nests, then feeding them there; the caterpillars additionally take
the chance to prey upon the ants’ personal pupae).

Even so, it’s an immense step up,
behaviourally talking, from ants feeding ‘cuckoo’ caterpillars that they’ve
been tricked into bringing inside their nests to ants purposefully trapping
snakes inside their nests, then fattening them up, earlier than killing them
particularly to devour them. Such a extremely superior technique has no readily
obvious, direct parallels elsewhere within the ant, or certainly in the complete
insect, world – or does it? Learn on.

In August 2019, a trio of Japanese
researchers who included Teppei Jono printed a captivating Royal Society Open Science paper (click on right here
to entry it) revealing two very totally different however intently interacting
relationships between a species of Madagascan myrmicine ant Aphaenogaster swammerdami and two
species of snake, all of which was hitherto unsuspected by science and
unequivocally novel. The snakes are a big ant-eating blindsnake referred to as Mocquard’s
worm snake Madatyphlops decorsei, and
an excellent bigger ophiophagous (snake-eating) lampropheid referred to as the Malagasy
cat-eyed snake Madagascarophis colubrinus
(additionally identified domestically because the ant mom – see later).


Native to a lot of the world (sub-Saharan
Africa, a lot of South America, and Antarctica being the one main exceptions),
there are roughly 200 species of Aphaenogaster
ant, which belong to the taxonomic subfamily Myrmicinae, and produce only a
single caste of employee. They’re well-known for his or her massive funnel-shaped nests
(extra about which later), incomes them the frequent identify of funnel ants. In Madagascar,
a significant predator of those ants is Mocquard’s worm snake Madatyphlops decorsei, endemic to this mini-island continent, and
formally described by French herpetologist Dr François Mocquard in 1901, who
named it in honour of Gaston-Jules Decorse, a French military doctor.

Mocquard assigned this newly-revealed
species to the nominate blindsnake genus Typhlops,
the place it remained till 2014 when a brand new genus, Madatyphlops, was particularly created for the blindsnakes of
Madagascar and the Comoros (14 species are at present recognised), and to which
it was duly transferred (and of which it’s the largest species). Darkish shiny
grey-brown dorsally, paler ventrally, this species spends its life underground,
explaining why it solely has vestigial eyes.

As for the Malagasy cat-eyed snake or ant
mom Madagascarophis colubrinus,
this species is an energetic predator of Mocquard’s worm snake and is a member of
the taxonomic household Lampropheidae. The latter was lengthy thought of to be merely
a subfamily of Colubridae, however was elevated to the extent of a household in its personal
proper in 2010 when a molecular-based research revealed that in actuality its member
species had been extra intently allied to the elapids than to the colubrids. Very
variable in color and markings, M.
is one in all 5 species housed inside its genus, endemic to
Madagascar, and all are mildly venomous, however they’re able to constriction too
if their venom proves inadequate to subdue their prey. This consists of different
small reptiles, together with snakes as already famous, plus rodents. They’ve
massive eyes with vertical, superficially cat-like pupils, therefore their frequent

Malagasy cat-eyed snake Madagascarophis
, aka the ant mom (© Dawson/Wikipedia –
CC BY-SA 2.5 licence)

In keeping with a publicity launch (click on right here
to entry it)
issued on Scimex when the Japanese group’s August
2019 paper was printed:

A Madagascan ant species can inform whether or not marauding snakes are
buddy or foe. When ant-eating blind snakes strategy an ant nest, the employee
ants run again to evacuate their younger, leaving a number of behind to mount a biting
assault on the intruder. However in addition they have a second line of defence. The ants
enable one of many few identified predators of the blindsnake – a snake-eating snake –
into their nest, in what the authors say is a symbiotic relationship the place the
ants get safety and the snake will get a comfy place to cover. As a substitute of biting
the snake-eating snake when it approaches, the ants contact them with their
antenna – a well known type of communication between ants.

Previously, variations in reactions by
ants to different species had solely occurred relative to totally different insect predators
or aggressors. Consequently, as famous by College of York researcher Dr
Eleanor Drinkwater in a Bare Scientists
web site interview on 20 August 2019 regarding this research by Jono et al., the latter is perhaps the primary research
to indicate that ants react otherwise to totally different vertebrate predators too. When
the researchers performed experiments to find out the ants’ reactions to those
snakes, presenting to varied nests of this ant species a specimen of every of
the 2 snakes plus one in all a 3rd, management snake species, the ants ignored the
ant mom snake, however attacked the blindsnake and likewise the management snake.
Nonetheless, the one snake that despatched the ants fleeing again inside their nest to
evacuate it was the blindsnake.

One other employee specimen of Aphaenogaster
(© –
CC BY 4.0 licence)

Studying this exceptional discovery has made
me wonder if it could have influenced the native Madagascan perception in ants
trapping, fattening up, after which killing snakes. In any case, the explanation why the
native tribespeople discuss with M. colubrinus
because the ant mom is that they’re nicely conscious of its frequent presence round
the nests of this explicit species of ant, and that it preys upon the
blindsnakes preying upon the ants, thereby not directly defending the ants.

Additionally, the nests of some Aphaenogaster ants are each funnel-shaped
and deep, conceivably giving a misunderstanding that they’ve been specifically
created as inescapable traps for snaring creatures. (Having stated that, it’s
potential that in sure Australian Aphaenogaster
species, their nests’ funnel-shaped entrances do act as traps for floor
foraging arthropods.)

May it’s, subsequently, that the Madagascan
locals knew of the ants’ totally different particular reactions to those two snakes too,
lengthy earlier than the researchers scientifically revealed them just lately, however that
down by means of many generations of verbal retellings the true nature of those
reactions and likewise of their nests had turn into distorted and elaborated upon,
finally yielding an imaginative however wholly incorrect situation whereby the
ants don’t merely assault the blindsnakes however truly entice, feed, after which
feed upon them?

A predominantly black specimen of the Malagasy cat snake (©
Bernard Dupont/Wikipedia –
CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

In any case, it would not be the primary time
that garbled, orally-transmitted recollections of elusive animals and strange
animal behaviour by non-scientific observers has resulted within the evolution of
memorable but completely inaccurate people beliefs.

Lastly: after discovering the 2
above-quoted experiences in two successive early volumes of the Antananarivo Annual and Madagascar Journal,
I painstakingly checked by means of each succeeding quantity of it, and likewise extensively
elsewhere on-line, however I’ve been unable to uncover any further experiences on
this most curious topic.

Consequently, it presently stays a
herpetological enigma – except anybody studying this ShukerNature weblog article of
mine has additional data? In that case, I might love to listen to from you!

Madagascar’s ophidian ant mom Madagascarophis colubrinus (© Axel Strauss/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)


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