The world of ants
ON A TRAIL WITH ANTS A Handbook of the Ants of Peninsular India: Ajay Narendra and M. Sunil Kumar; Copies can be had from The Heritage, Rangarao Road, Shankarpuram, Bangalore-560004. Rs. 600.
The popular literature on Indian animals has hitherto dealt with almost entirely just a few groups: the vertebrates particularly the mammals and the birds and the butterflies. The few broad works on insects as a whole and on spiders are the exceptions. Recently, dragonflies and damselflies have received more specific treatment and subsequently are being "discovered" by Indian naturalists. On a Trail with Ants is an essay adding to the set of select taxa another, perhaps less tractable, group of animals. The "trail" takes one deeper into the world of ants than do the other broader works on Indian insects.
Exploring various topics related to ants, with one extended chapter (out of a total of 10) devoted to 50 species accounts, this well produced book does not particularly fall into a conventional field guide format. The chapters are imaginatively titled Mixing Business with Pleasure concerned with ecological interactions of ants, is overly so.
One of the chapters is devoted to the complicated aspects of one of the trademarks of ants, their social behaviour. Another chapter is about the fascinating lives of weaver ants. These ants are arboreal, building nests by binding leaves together with the silk produced by their own larvae. Weaver ants use the larvae as live shuttles as they "weave" the silk between the leaves!
The book is illustrated throughout with impressive magnified colour images. Indeed, a section or at least some hints on ant photography would not have gone amiss. Often the pictures depict dramatic action, including assassination bids. Some pictures could do with more elaborate captions. Figure 8 is one such: it shows worker ants preventing a winged male ant from flying out of the nest. But why are they doing this? Is this behaviour commonly observed?
The species accounts are short, with a strong emphasis on physical descriptions of the ants. An elaborate set of symbols has been used to convey pictorial information relating to each species. A butterfly silhouette is used to indicate that an ant is predatory; the "recycle" symbol means it uses temporary nests and so on. These symbols are somewhat reminiscent of railway guides indicating the facilities available at a station.
The images of ants are literally larger than life; despite the detail, perhaps because of the detail, they convey an impression that they are somewhat different from that of the living animal. This makes identification from the pictures difficult. Thus it takes some effort to determine that the red-thoraxed painfully stinging ant many of us have encountered as children at school is the one named the Arboreal Bicolored Ant.
Unfortunately, the book has no index, and cross-references with page numbers are scarce, so that searching for a particular species account is tedious. For instance, Diacamma ceylonense is referred to in "Ant Watching", with no indication that there is a species account for this ant in pages 158-159.
The final chapter provides a rather tangential but interesting sketch: it outlines how lessons learnt from ant behaviour are used in technology in a range of fields from telecommunication networks to traffic management.
An extensive glossary has been provided. Its utility could have been enhanced by the provision of simple illustrations to describe what pectinate tibial spurs are, for example.
In the edifice of Indian natural history study, one finds few books that have served to create the foundation upon which the structure has been built. This book, a pioneering look at the life of ants, is a foundation stone upon which an extension remains to be constructed.
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