Monday, August 20, 2012

Formidable Formica

Finland rightly has a reputation for great northern scenery and nature, including some abundant wildlife.

Most people from the temperate world – if they ever have cause to think about it at all – probably imagine Finland to be a land of moose, bears, and reindeer. They might also think of swans and other waterfowl. All of that is true, of course. If forced to consider insects, some people might recall hearing rumors that here be monster mosquitoes. Very true, indeed.

However, there is one very prominent form of six-legged wildlife that most people (myself included, before I came here) would never have associated with this Nordic landscape.

A Finnish anthill, somewhere in Savo.

Ants are everywhere in Finland. That’s no great surprise, since there is no place on earth without ants. (Well, except Antarctica, ironic when you consider that continent’s name. It's  the “arctica” of ants, isn't it?)

What is surprising in the case of Finland is how conspicuous ants are. In subtropical Georgia, you of course see ants scurrying over the ground almost anywhere you want to look. But you don’t normally pay attention to their homes, usually just marked by a sprinkling of dirt surrounding a tiny hole in the ground. They are easy to overlook, at least in North Georgia. In Finland, that is not a problem.

Ant nests are huge here. They can easily be a meter (three feet) tall, rising out of the green forest floor like a brown pyramid covered in thousands of energetic worker ants.

The sheer size of Finnish ant colonies, teeming with hundreds of thousands of the little buggers, means its best to give them a wide berth. Except that some Finns – living up to a certain national character that can only be described as quirky (some might say masochistic) –  make a point of doing just the opposite.

Leaf-cutting ants. Not found in Finland.
Among one of the strangest of strange Finnish “sports” (and there are some strange ones), “anthill sitting” is one whose appeal is probably lost on anyone who is not a Finn (and, to be honest, most Finns as well).

The goal of this contest is to see who can sit the longest on top of an angry nest of ants. Oh, yes, and to give the ants a sporting chance (they are, after all, pretty small), the human contestants do this in the buff. I think alcohol is often involved. I know that would have to be the case for me to take part.

Needless to say, there are better ways to appreciate ants. I once worked for a botanist at the University of Georgia who studied leaf-cutting ants in South America. These ants are famous for snipping off bits of leaves, which they carry back to their nests to use as fertilizer for their actual foodstuff, fungus. It is basically a kind of farming.

I always hoped my boss would need me to join one of his expeditions to the Amazon, but it never happened. I did eventually get to see leafcutters in action, however, when my four-year-old son and I visited the Parque Natural Metropolitano, a patch of tropical forest in Panama City, Panama.

On a Finland-related note: the Parque Metropolitano is used as a study site by the nearby US Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which employs a large construction crane to access the 30-meter-high (90-foot) forest canopy. The crane was, I believe, provided by a well-known Finnish machine company and paid for, in part, by the Finnish government. A surprising reminder of Suomi in the jungle.

Young explorer in Panama.

There, under that tropical canopy, I experienced maybe my only true David Attenborough moment when we happened upon a trail of leaf cutting ants marching in a straight line over the forest floor. As we followed this tiny procession of hundreds of ants, each one holding a slice of green leaf, the line joined with another line of ants, coming from a different direction and all carrying, instead of leaves, some sort of red berries. The converged lines of leaf- and berry-carriers continued together, moving relentlessly toward their distant nest. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in the woods.

Still, as we watched this miniature parade, it somehow didn’t occur to me to follow them to their nest and sit on it. Guess I’m not Finnish enough. 


  1. You are indeed a well-traveled gentleman.

    We actually have anthills something like the Finnish one in your photo. I happened upon them in the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia. Most of the wilderness sits at, or above, 4K feet above sea level. It gets really harsh up there in the Fall and Winter. As I was hiking along (and alone)I began to notice these big mounds scattered amidst the vast fields of blueberry bushes. So of course I investigated. My first impression was that they were anthills, but I didn't see any ants. So I disturbed the nests hoping for a reaction. None was forthcoming. The nests seemed to be made almost entirely of spruce needles and such--the color was uniformly rusty, indicating the decay of those evergreen trees.

    Eventually I asked some of my learned online pals who have Phds in various natural sciences and they told me that the big mounds were, indeed, anthills. And that the reason I saw no ants was that they'd already retreated deep into the earth (it was late October). But they looked almost exactly like the one in your first photo, but the largest ones I found were only about half that size. Still, quite large--and maybe there are some that big in the Dolly Sods. I just didn't see any of those dimensions.

  2. Yes, I've been lucky enough to make it to the tropics a couple of times, and wouldn't mind doing so again sometime. We've got a standing invitation to visit friends in West Africa, but let's see if that happens.

    I imagine the size of the anthills, both in Finland and Dolly Sods, has something to do with the cold climate. Dolly Sods sound like a great place to visit.