“These are the largest ants found in nature,” said Þorkell Heiðarsson, department head at the Reykjavík Zoo and Family Park, about the giant ants on their way to Reykjavík’s little zoo from their current home in Brazil. Þorkell discussed the ants on RÚV morning radio today. The bugs belong to the genus Dinoponera, found only in the jungles of South America. Female worker ants of the genus can grow to 3-4cm (1.18-1.57in) in length.
In order to import the crawly creatures, the zoo needed permission from both Icelandic and Brazilian authorities. The ants coming to Iceland are not exactly jungle dwellers, however: they will be taken from a Sao Paolo university lab where they are bred for study. The Dinoponera specimens won’t be the first ants to call the zoo home: leafcutter ants were once exhibited there as well. Leafcutters are much smaller than the zoo’s expected residents, but they have a very complex social structure. “They grow mushrooms to feed their offspring, have been gardening and farming since time immemorial,” Þorkell says. “They have many castes, which range from two millimetres to just over one centimetre long.”
The giant ants on their way to Reykjavík Zoo are much larger, but their social organisation is not nearly as stratified. “There isn’t as much division of labour and way fewer ants in each colony, just a few dozen, instead of even millions.” Þorkell says the ants are popular among children and have significant educational value, by making it possible to “observe how little insects maintain complex social systems like people do.”
In general, animal imports are banned in Iceland, and the Reykjavík Zoo houses mostly Icelandic farm animals. It does, however, have a few more exotic specimens such as lizards and a snake. The ants were granted an exception by Icelandic authorities, which considered them low risk, as they are unlikely to survive and propagate in Iceland were they to escape. “These ants are tropical animals and there is no way they can survive in the wild in Iceland,” Þorkell explained.
Brazilian authorities have yet to give the full go-ahead for the ants’ export, though if all goes as planned, they could be at the zoo in just a few weeks. Þorkell is unsure whether he will handle the delivery personally. “These ants are very hardy and can sting and cause a lot of pain. [They] are related to bees and wasps. So I won’t promise anything in that regard.”