The Cost of Good Images

Frankencam has been designed to make filming small things on the forest floor easy. Taking still images is a whole other problem. If you want to get striking photos of ants, you may well need to lie down on the ground with them. In the tropics, this behaviour carries a risk - in this case, some kind of burrowing animal (see photo) - possibly a fly larva, possibly a very large kind of mite (photo dimensions about 40mmx35mm). If anyone has an idea what it could be, we’d love to know.

Argentine Ants

Our last shoot in Spain focussed on the Argentine ant invasion of the world. Scientists are only just unravelling the causes of their incredible success at colonising Europe, North America, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and many more. It turns out that the bulk of these ants form one enormous super colony of ants that will always welcome each other if introduced. There are other supercolonies, one from Catalonia in Spain, which will immediately attack ants from different super colonies, and fight to the death. This photo shows one ant from the main supercolony snipping the leg of an ant from the Catalan supercolony, while its own limbs are severed in the same way.

Army Ant Myth

People love to write and believe sensationalist drivel about army ants. The internet is full of made-up ‘facts’ that suggest they can eat chickens, pigs, even people, that everything living flees from their advance etc etc. In fact, the best known species of army ant, Eciton burchellii doesn’t eat meat, never touches carrion, and a swarm will turn and run from a stamped foot or human breath. Its behaviour is still utterly extraordinary, and is an ant filmmakers dream - because it lives most of its life in the open where it can be seen. In this photo, a coordinated team of four ants cooperate to carry a centipede carcass.

There are other species of army ant that are much less pleasant to work with. Labidus and Dorylus are two genera of more aggressive ants that will attack livestock if it is caged or tied. But even for them, stripping a mouse to the bone would take a day. Disposing of a chicken is entirely out of their league.

Bullet Ant Myth

This is one of the largest species of ant in the world, about 25mm long, here carrying a drop of liquid back to its nest. Apparently it’s called the bullet ant because it is said that when it stings you, you feel as if you’ve been shot. Personally, I’d say it’s more like a bee sting, only a bit sharper, and nowhere near as painful as the sting of the harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex), one species of which has been identified as possessing the most potent venom of any animal so far tested.


Airport Drama

The message to Iceland had been
'Please send CASH'

meanwhile our ant-filming crew are stuck in Madrid airport waiting for the rest of the cases to turn up - we have a lot of baggage


Santa Rosa Dry Forest trees

Costa Rica wet and dry

The dry season is the best time of year to visit Santa Rosa. Because of the extreme conditions (rain for 6 months, no rain at all for 6 months) the trees here have developed some spectacular adaptations to the climate. By January, most of the trees have lost all of their leaves, and the place looks almost like a northerm deciduous forest in the winter. But it’s 40 degrees in the shade. Extreme thorns are a regular features (see photo) while other trees have bark that can continue to photosynthesise through the dryest weather, long after the tree has become leafless (see photo).

100 miles away, on the other side of the mountains which divide Costa Rica, is La Selva research station, the place that caused the fungal foot episode. Here, the habitat is rain forest in the truest sense. At the moment, it rains for an hour, then we get no rain at all for an hour. Filming is going slowly. Today the crew are waiting out the weather beneath a canopy created by huge 60 metre trees, notably ceiba, surrounded by ferns of every description, and the wild relatives of typical office pot plants, ficus, palms, cheese plants etc. (pics to follow)

The Director

Deer chases vampire in Costa Rica


It's Getting Competitive

The Director has sent us this photo of an arm that has reacted badly to the bites of tick larvae. He feels that this spectacle deserves more sympathy than Stephen's fungal foot - should we turn this into a proper competition, awarding a medal to the most appalling fate suffered by wildlife film-makers?


Vampires In The Forest

While the ant crew are filming at La Selva, I’m spending a few days in another part of Costa Rica - the extraordinary Pacific dry forest of Guanacaste conservation area* - investigating the possibility of another film (that would be our fourth in this area).

This forest type was once found along the entire Central American Pacific coast, and now exists only as a few fragments, this being probably the largest.

At this time of year, it’s bone dry, few of the trees have leaves, and yet there are still typical rainforest animals living here, parrots, tapirs, jaguars, three species of monkey - and vampire bats.

Last night, testing the thermal camera allowed us to watch as vampires landed near white tailed deer, and hop towards them. The deer knew exactly what was going on, and chased the vampires away.

The Director

* more here


Welly Rot

I have cycled more miles in the last week than over the course of the entire year. This isn’t part of some new fitness program; it’s all because of ants.

My recent bout of pedalling is taking place in jungle – Costa Rican jungle. We are at La Selva, a small reserve run by the Organization for Tropical Studies. They had the foresight to make this beautiful patch of rainforest accessible to everyone, and that means broad cement trails that link together a good chunk of its 1600 hectares of protected land. For a film crew it’s a great help, particularly when you have 21 cases of heavy film equipment to lug through the forest. We can rent tricycles with large front-loaded luggage carriers to move our equipment to the best areas for ant action. In the last week we have witnessed two army ant raids, filmed leaf-cutter ants chomping their way through hundreds of cocoa leaves and assembled a 20-foot crane in the forest to shoot a high-angle view of a large leaf-cutter ants’ nest.

But I am beginning to feel rotten – quite literally. My left foot has developed a fungal infection from days spent in sweaty rubber boots. Why rubber boots? There are plenty of snakes in the forest that could kill with a single bite not to mention the awesome stinging power of hundreds of thousand of marching army ants; boots are a line of defence against the dangerous creatures of the jungles but unfortunately the pay-off seems to be foot rot! I think, all things considered, I’ll stick with wearing the boots and take my chances with my rotting left foot.

Stephen Dunleavy