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July 1, 2012, vol 8, no 2

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Marcyn Del Clements

The Red-Legged Ant

Those red-legged ants can jump! I saw one up at Dead Horse Lake, as I watched, it jumped at least 2 inches from a cleft in the rock to the other side!

I wrote that while I was still at Gladys Lake, just south and east of the John Muir Trail, high in my rocky aerie camp. But today I was taking a Lay-Over Day, at beautiful Rosalie Lake about 600 feet above and south of Shadow Lake which would be my exit trail off the John Muir Trail to Agnew Meadows and Mammoth Mountain, and then home.

Rosalie Lake has fewer mosquitos than any of the lakes so far, along this heavily used route. And some thru hikers told me Shadow Lake was crowded, with skeeters and campers. So I chose Rosalie. It is a quiet day….I spend it flyfishing, or looking at flowers, or photographing ferns, or taking a quick sitzbath….wondering which will get to me first, the mosquitos or the big black ants. There's a lot of ants, big and little, and I have ample time to study them….after I'm dried and dressed and protected against bites again.

The big red-legged ants are agile and strong. There is a huge size difference between the big ones and little ones, like the difference between a Saint Bernard and a chihuahua. I'm not so sure they are any smarter than the smaller ants though. You see them zipping and zagging along a log—or the glacial polished rocks. Are they gathering information, following a pheromone trail?

At camp, I watch one dancing crazily along—once turning a total circle—I was so close—I saw that she had only one antenna. She jumped down into the dirt my boot steps had scratched up. Then she started climbing straight up a sheer wall of rock. She got about two inches off the ground, lost her purchase and fell on her back—waving her legs, she finally got herself righted and ran behind my Jetboil. I was so close to her, I saw for the first time that although fore and aft were black, her thorax was red.

I turned my attention to supper. Somewhat later—I saw a small black ant, struggling to carry a huge burden—a dead ant, four times its size curled in its jaws. It was a red-legged ant. I bent down closely to see if the dead ant had one antenna.

Rosalie outfall
buckets over the cliff edge
wind carries sweet mist