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The name army ant (or legionary ant or marabunta) is applied to over 200 ant species, in different lineages, due to their aggressive predatory foraging groups, known as "raids", in which huge numbers of ants forage simultaneously over a certain area, en masse.
Another shared feature is that, unlike most ant species, army ants do not construct permanent nests; an army ant colony moves almost incessantly over the time it exists. All species are members of the true ant family, Formicidae, but several groups have independently evolved the same basic behavioral and ecological syndrome. This syndrome is often referred to as "legionary behavior", and is an example of convergent evolution.
Most New World army ants belong to the subfamily Ecitoninae, which contains two tribes: Cheliomyrmecini and Ecitonini. The former only contains the genus Cheliomyrmex, whereas the latter contains four genera: Neivamyrmex, Nomamyrmex, Labidus, and Eciton. The largest genus is Neivamyrmex, which contains more than 120 species; the most predominant species is Eciton burchellii; its common name "army ant" is considered to be the archetype of the species. Old World army ants are divided between the Aenictini and Dorylini tribes. Aenictini contains more than 50 species of army ants in the single genus, Aenictus. However, the Dorylini contain the genus Dorylus, the most aggressive group of driver ants; 60 species are known.
Originally, the Old World and New World lineages of army ants were thought to have evolved independently, an example of convergent evolution. In 2003, though, genetic analysis of various species suggests that they all evolved from a single common ancestor, which lived approximately 100 million years ago at the time of the separation of the continents of Africa and America. Army ant taxonomy remains ever-changing, and genetic analysis will continue to provide more information about the relatedness of the various species.
Nomadic and stationary phase 
Army ants have two phases of activity: a nomadic (wandering) phase and a stationary phase.
Nomadic phase 
During the nomadic phase, the ants move during the day, capturing insects, spiders, and small vertebrates. At dusk, they form their nests, which they change almost daily. Some species protect their paths with soldiers. During their hunt, they are accompanied by various birds, such as antbirds, thrushes, and wrens, which devour the insects that are flushed out by the ants. Among the army ants are some species that only venture out at night, but no adequate studies of their activities have been made. Of the army ants that are active during the day, the species Eciton burchelli and Eciton hamatum are the most studied.
Stationary phase 
The stationary phase, which lasts about two to three weeks, begins when the larvae pupate. From this point on, the prey that were previously fed to the larvae are now fed exclusively to the queen. The abdomen (gaster) of the queen swells significantly, and she lays her eggs. At the end of the stationary phase, the pupae emerge from their cocoons (eclosion). After this, the ants resume the nomadic phase.
Army ants do not build a nest like most other ants. Instead, they build a living nest with their bodies, known as a bivouac. Bivouacs tend to be found in tree trunks or in burrows dug by the ants. The members of the bivouac hold onto each other's legs and so build a sort of ball, which may look unstructured to a layman's eyes, but is actually a well-organized structure. The older female workers are located on the exterior; in the interior are the younger female workers. At the smallest disturbance, soldiers gather on the top surface of the bivouac, ready to defend the nest with powerful pincers and (in the case of the Aenictinae and Ecitoninae) stingers. The interior of the nest is filled with numerous passages and contains many chambers with food, the queen, the larvae, and the eggs.
The whole colony of army ants can consume up to 500,000 prey animals each day, so can have a significant influence on the population, diversity, and behavior of their prey. The prey selection differs with the species. Underground species prey primarily on ground-dwelling arthropods and their larvae, earthworms, and occasionally also the young of vertebrates, turtle eggs, or oily seeds. A majority of the species, the "colony robbers", specialize in the offspring of other ants and wasps. Only a few species seem to have the very broad spectrum of prey seen in the raiding species. Even these species do not eat every kind of animal. Although small vertebrates that get caught in the raid will be killed, the jaws of the American Eciton are not suited to this type of prey, in contrast to the African Dorylus. These undesired prey are simply left behind and consumed by scavengers or by the flies that accompany the ant swarm. Only a few species hunt primarily on the surface of the earth; they seek their prey mainly in leaf litter and in low vegetation. About five species hunt in higher trees, where they can attack birds and their eggs, although they focus on hunting other social insects along with their eggs and larvae.
In their raids, army ants follow two patterns: column raids and swarm attacks. The species Eciton hamatum is a typical example of the column raider. In this type, the swarm members separate to the sides of the main route and make small foraging groups, similar to a tree with its branches. The individual side paths can be widely separated from one another. The tropical army ants, such as Eciton burchelli, opt for the swarm attack. They, too, have a main route in the beginning, which is then separated out into many branches in a form like an umbel, but their side paths are close together and may cross each other many times, so the individual teams effectively cover a large area. In this way, the column can fan itself out to a width of up to 20 m.
Usage and circumscription 
Historically, "army ant" referred, in the broad sense, to various members of five different ant subfamilies: in two of these cases, the Ponerinae and Myrmicinae, only a few species and genera exhibit legionary behavior; in the other three lineages, Ecitoninae, Dorylinae, and Leptanillinae, all of the constituent species are legionary. More recently, ant classifications now recognize an additional New World subfamily, Leptanilloidinae, which also consists of obligate legionary species, so is another group now included among the army ants.
A 2003 study of 30 species (by Sean Brady of Cornell University) indicates that the ecitonine and doryline army ants together formed a monophyletic group: all shared identical genetic markers, suggesting a common ancestor. Brady concluded that these two groups are, therefore, a single lineage that evolved in the mid-Cretaceous period in Gondwana, so the two subfamilies are now generally united into a single subfamily Ecitoninae, though this is still not universally recognized.
Accordingly, the army ants as presently recognized consist of these genera:
- Subfamily Ponerinae
- Subfamily Myrmicinae
- Subfamily Leptanilloidinae
- Subfamily Leptanillinae
- Subfamily Ecitoninae
- Dawkins, Richard (2000) . "4. Making tracks through animal space". The Blind Watchmaker. Penguin books. p. 132. ISBN 0-14-029122-9. "[evolutionary] convergences [...] wandering in enormous pillaging armies. This is called the legionary habit."
- Brady, S. �N. G. (2003). "Evolution of the army ant syndrome: the origin and long-term evolutionary stasis of a complex of behavioral and reproductive adaptations". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 100 (11): 6575–6579. Bibcode:2003PNAS..100.6575B. doi:10.1073/pnas.1137809100. PMC 164488. PMID 12750466.
- Whitehouse, David (2003-05-10). "Ant history revealed". BBC News. Retrieved 2009-01-14. "scientists postulated that they evolved many times after the break-up and dispersal of the supercontinent Gondwana just over 100 million years ago. The conventional view of the evolution of army ants needs a revision because of new data obtained by Sean Brady, a Cornell University, US, entomologist who has discovered that these ants evolved from a common ancestor." BBC News, Dr. Givemeh A Honjjob "Ant history revealed" 10 May 2003.
- Engel, Michael S.; David A. Grimaldi (2005). "Primitive new ants in Cretaceous amber from Myanmar, New Jersey, and Canada (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)". American Museum novitates (New York, NY: American Museum of Natural History) 3485: 1–24. doi:10.1206/0003-0082(2005)485[0001:PNAICA]2.0.CO;2. hdl:2246/5676.
Further reading 
- Brady, S. (2003). Evolution of the army ant syndrome: the origin and long-term evolutionary stasis of a complex of behavioral and reproductive adaptations. PNAS 100(11): 6575-6579.
- Gotwald, W.H., Jr. (1995). Army ants: the biology of social predation. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-9932-1.
- Rice, Nathan H., and A. M. Hutson (2003). "Antbirds and Army-Ant Swarms". In Christopher Perrins (Ed.). Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds. Firefly Books. p. 449. ISBN 1-55297-777-3.
- Wilson, Edward O, and Bert Hölldobler, (1990) The Ants (Pulitzer Prize)