We needed to find out more about our ant antagonism so I talked to our ant expert Alex Wild, as well as some other antologists (myrmecologists) who happened to be visiting the Southwest Research Station (funded by the American Museum of Natural History) during what must be the biggest annual gathering of myrmecologists anywhere in the world (about 50 attendees).
As it turns out, very little is known about the relationship between the long legged ants (Aphaenogaster cockerelli) and the orange harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex maricopa). We’ll just have to look very closely at the images when we get back home to see if we can work out why they fight every day, but don’t actually seem to hurt each other (which both are quite capable of doing).
On the other hand, we did discover that the spectacular Chiricahua mountains have been undergoing the same sort of territorial ebb and flow as the as the ant territories. Two hundred years ago, this area was technically a part of Mexico (in the eyes of the Mexican government), but in practice was part of the Apache lands which straddled the borders between Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. The Apaches were doing pretty well in keeping their lands to themselves and keeping settlers away. So much so that the Mexicans were only too happy to sell the Chiricahuas and surrounding area to the emerging United States for $10 million (about $236 million in modern money) for the building of a railroad. This ultimately led to the Apache wars where leaders Cochise and Geronimo held off settlers and the US army for a decade in a desperate attempt to keep their territory and culture intact.
They failed, and their people were removed. What little is left of the Apache nation is restricted to the San Carlos reservation to the North of the Chiricahuas. There are many differing accounts of events of the Apache wars, but Geronimo’s autobiography Geronimo - His Own Story* would be a fascinating place to start.
We have no idea how the change of land use affected the ants, the arrival of thousands of cattle would have certainly changed the habitat dramatically from the ants point of view with both beneficial and harmful consequences, possibly bringing the long legged ants and the orange harvester ants together for the first time.
Today, the US now fears incursions by Mexicans, and is making the border to the South secure against further immigration. The US Border patrol driving their green and white trucks are always much in evidence on the gravel roads as we try to get to our ants before sunrise (about 5.30am). On the back of each truck is a cage - in case they catch a Mexican trying to settle in a new land.
*also available as an audiobook