Why becoming a Man in the Amazon Might Be Something To Avoid.

Posted: April 6, 2013 in Arthropods

This will be an important post for two reasons.

Firstly, it is the thirteenth post. Obviously, this will bring extremely bad luck to someone, hopefully not me. So if you finish reading this to discover someone (probably me, in fairness) has sent you a parcel containing a still living sea wasp, or whatever, don’t be too surprised

Secondly, this’ll be the last post for a while, as it turns out I actually have a degree to do; and it turns out giving out extremely poorly informed advice on how to deal with various unpleasant animals is not, in itself, enough to get one. This is a tad annoying, I have to admit, as I was hoping to base my entire career around getting paid lots of money to give out extremely poorly informed advice.

“Seriously, you guys should invade Russia. It’ll be a piece of cake”
(I was fired from the Wehrmacht shortly thereafter)

But here’s a piece of advice which is, actually, fairly well informed. If a South American tribe asks you if you want to participate in a ‘coming of age’ ceremony, refuse. And by ‘refuse’ I of course mean ‘run until you reach a place where the ‘coming of age’ ceremony does not include ants formed from pure Hate’.

Yeah, because some tribes actually do that, deep in the Amazon rainforest. Why, I have no idea. Possibly its because TV and the Internet haven’t reached that far yet, and so there’s little in the way of entertainment aside from watching a boy leap around as the aforementioned ants inflict almost unimaginable pain upon him.

Well, it beats Monopoly, at least.

The ant is Paraponera clavata, and it is so unpleasant that it is the only ant in its genus; with all the other ant species being too afraid to be placed in the same group as it (I presume that is how taxonomy works). However, this ant is also known by some rather more colourful names, such as  ‘the bullet ant’ and  ‘giant hunting ant’.

Nothing about this animal is good. Nothing. (Photocredit: Wikimedia Commons)

You will notice that, firstly, the words ‘harmless’ or ‘cuddly’ did not appear just then, and secondly that ‘giant’ is a word you really, really do not want to be applied to ants.

Why is it called the ‘bullet ant’, you may ask. Well, people who have been stung by it claim the pain is equivalent to getting shot. Whilst I have no way of actually verifying this [well, actually, you kind of do…Ed] there is no doubt that this is an exceptionally painful sting. Other names for it  include the ‘twenty four hour ant’, as the pain does not go away for that long.

This inch long piece of horror lives mostly in the lowland rainforests in northern South America, and lives in fairly small nests – usually numbering at most only a few thousand individuals. This is, as we shall see later, extremely good news.

Back to the sting. Once upon a time, there was a man called Justin Schmidt, who obviously was really hated by his careers advisor. His job involved collecting various species of venomous insects, and obviously he regularly got stung by them. Whilst the rest of us would simply quit that job, retreat into the comforting embrace of Lady Liquor and possibly plot a horrific revenge upon said careers advisor, he simply noted down how painful these stings were, and over time he developed a ‘Pain Index’ of over 78 species. (http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/3052/did-the-creator-of-the-schmidt-sting-pain-index-volunteer-to-get-stung-by-everything-on-earth)

This scale ranges from 1-4, and each insect has a somewhat bizarre description of the pain it causes. For example, the yellowjacket wasp scores a 2 and is “Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue”, which to be honest sounds like a very pretentious wine review, whilst the puny sweat bee only scores a one and is like “Light, ephemeral, almost fruity”, which sounds even more like a wine review.

(http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2148089/The-10-painful-stings-planet-self-sacrificing-man-tried-150-different-varieties-science.html)

“This wine has an acidic, bitter aroma; with a burning aftertaste. Perfect for awkward family meals or a futile dinner to try and repair your failing relationship”

This man, who was stung over a hundred times by some of the nastiest insects on the planet, put the Bullet Ant top of the list. The ant scores a ‘4+’, and was described as ‘immediate, excruciating pain’ and ‘pure, intense, brilliant pain’. In conclusion, the man who probably had more experience of insect stings and bites than anyone else ever thought that this was the worst pain he had ever encountered. The pain is frequently described as a burning sensation, which can continue for a day. As well as the pain, numbness, paralysis and trembling of the affected limb has also been noted (

http://web.expasy.org/spotlight/back_issues/sptlt014.shtml). And this is just one sting, from one ant. If you were unfortunate (and given that this is the thirteenth post, you may well be) enough to fall headfirst into a nest of these animals, you could well die. The trembling and paralysis is almost certainly down to the protein poneratoxin, which blocks synapses, leading to loss of muscle control. However the component which causes the pain has yet to be isolated.

To become a man in certain tribes, they have an initiation rite, where young men have to place their whole arms inside a ‘glove’ made out of leaves, inside of which are woven bullet ants. The aspirant must keep his arm inside the glove for ten minutes, and not scream. This obviously leads to temporary paralysis and uncontrollable shaking that can last for days. And to become a man, they must do this twenty times; which serves as a terrible, terrible warning of what happens when you allow practical jokers to dictate your most sacred traditions. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGIZ-zUvotM)

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