Skip to Content
Skip to Search
Skip to Navigation
Skip to Content

University of Connecticut University Libraries

Photographs of Army Ants by Carl W. Rettenmeyer

Army ants are the most important predators in tropical forests. One colony can kill over one million animals per week. The association of army ants with about 1000 species of birds, insects, mites, and millipedes is the largest complex of interacting animals in tropical forests. The roles of the invertebrate associates of army ants are largely unknown.

As an undergraduate student in 1952, Carl Rettenmeyer had the rare opportunity to spend six months as a field assistant on a study of army ants in the tropical forest on Barro Colorado Island, Panama. As a result of that experience, Life Magazine sent him, in 1955, to the same area to help prepare a feature article about these ants. During that trip he discovered a series of insects and mites that live only with army ants. Those discoveries led to a National Science Foundation grant to return to Panama.

The mites he discovered there are so strange in morphology and behavior that he realized he needed photographic proof for his scientific colleagues. He and his wife and essential assistant, Marian, returned to Panama for seven months in 1956. They took an Exakta camera, two sets of extension tubes, two sets of bellows, and a Zeiss Tessar 5.6 lens. Electronic flashes were relatively new, and all they could afford was a weak flash requiring 110 volts AC. To photograph mites on living ants, they used 450 mm extension on the Tessar lens that had to be stopped down manually while the handheld flash was balanced by a white paper. This primitive equipment produced the photograph of the mite found only on the jaw of one species of army ant.

Today, most of Carl’s close-ups are taken with Nikons, Zeiss Luminar or Nikon 60 mm and 105 mm macro lenses, and usually with twin electronic flashes. He prefers to use Kodachrome 64 slide film because he believes it gives the most natural color, with pictures taken in 1956 matching the colors of those taken in 2001.

Except for those of the army ants themselves, most of Carl’s photographs in this exhibit are of new species discovered by the Rettenmeyers and their assistants. The prints are Ilfochrome prints made by KULA in Hartford and mounted and matte laminated by them. Picture Perfect, Stafford Springs, framed the images.