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The Worlds Apex predators, on permanent display, in your Zoological Collection.
Eciton burchellii, the South American Army Any, is without doubt, the ultimate killing machine in nature. All animals flee them, not can predate on any but a few individuals, they are known to everyone as the terrifying stuff of nightmares. A fully functioning nest of Army Ants, the only one in the world just now, would prove a massive publicity and marketing coup. To see a million ants hunting through their territory and carrying back to their nest the lines of dead insects, for your visitors this will be a must see exhibit. 
And now, thanks to nearly 20 years research into these incredible organisms, Andrew Stephenson has designed an enclosure capable of doing just that: permanently displaying Eciton burchellii, the Army Ant, in your zoo, to your public.



 
Background
Virtually all of our clients in the UK have a close season or, at least, a quiet few months, over the winter, where all of the ideas and suggestions are married to available budgets and something new appears in the Spring to attract more visitors. 
We normally find ourselves busy building some of these displays but this year, as well as enclosure builds and theming work around the world, we have finally finished the designs for a world's first display, a fully viable, permanent exhibit of South American Army Ants, potentially on display in your Zoo.
An Army Ant display is the Nirvana of Zoo Exhibits. They are the Worlds Terrestrial Apex predator, a super organism that overpowers everything, knows no fear and is feared by all they encounter. They are roaming killers travelling great distances through the forests where they are found and forming temporary camps each night in preparation for the next days raiding to come. If you have every witnessed a marauding army of Eciton ants in the wild you will understand the impact a captive display could have on interest from the public.
Up until now this display has proved impossible to create and make viable. There have been two attempts, historically, to keep army ants. Both failed. One was at Blackpool Zoo and was when I uncovered some very difficult habits of amy ants which made them almost impossible to contain. Ian Valentine, the then curator of Blackpool Zoo, had the vision and the sense of adventure to try something new, way back in the 1990's and allowed me to build a large exhibit for Army Ants. We formed a huge pool and created around 30 islands with bridges interlinking them to form a network of walkways. We were then able to make foraging areas and bivouac sites on these islands. The problem with this design arose because of some particular rules which govern the behaviour of these Ants in the wild and which, when they are transplanted to captivity, means they become nearly impossible to manage. In order to understand these problems and address them it is necessary to look at Eciton and their behaviour in the Central and South American rainforests where they are found. I have posted the excellent Wikipedia article on Army ants here, this discusses the main behavioural facts relating to keeping them in captivity.
The Problems associated with army ants in captivity.
There are two main characters possessed by Eciton Army Ants which causes all of the problems. Firstly in the wild they have a mechanism which prevents over exploitation of their territory and allows each area they raid to recover before being 'hit' again. If they come across the trail from the past day or so when they are hunting they will not cross it but rather they will turn away and head in a different direction. In the wild, where there is unlimited space to forage, this is an excellent mechanism for avoiding wasting time in an area that is already devoid of prey. In captivity, however, this behavioural trait is a disaster. In the Blackpool colony our strategy for this was to build the interconnecting bridges with a deep sand substrate and the keepers were instructed to rake the sand each day to disrupt the trail. The ants, however, did not restrict themselves to the sand and infact covered the whole of the bridge and several others simultaneously and the pheromone evidence of their passing was so strong that, after a couple of days the Army Ants were effectively barricaded in on the small island they were bivouaced on. Any direction they chose to forage in resulted in meeting their previous trail scent and a return to home. So the colony effectively starved to death. 
Another factor which makes Eciton Army Ants almost impossible to contain is their ability to cooperate in such a way that they become able to escape just about any enclosure and cross any barrier. When they are hunting and they encounter a stream, no problem, they just link bodies across it, the ones in the water drown but remain locked together, the rest of the ants pour across. I had a colony coralled on an island in Trinidad some years back, studying them for this exhibit design, and one morning I came to the pond to find the colony gone and around 1000 ants dead, in a 120cm long bridge from island to shore, an awesome display of ultimate cooperation. They will link their bodies to form a ladder from a tree branch to the ground, they will climb, one on top of the other, forming a scaffold to reach over a surface they cannot grip, and they can extend an arm of ants over a chasm to bridge a sheer drop. In short, they can get out of just about anything.
 
The Exhibit.
1. We need a big building.
This exhibit cannot be offered as small, medium or large. Only Large. 
Because of the size of the range of these ants it would be impossible to provide for their needs by having them forage two dimensionally so we will take them into the third dimension, up above, into the air. We will build a huge exhibit and we will need a building which is very high. Think Games Hall. 
2. The Public will walk through 
the territory of the Ants, they will be foraging all around them. If you have never seen the scale of an army ant raid you will struggle to understand the spectacle that awaits your visitors seeing our exhibit. Imagine a portion of the foraging area literally being black with a writhing mass of ants. Up into the air, 20 feet above their heads the hunt is on. Ropes and suspended masses of branches will be coated with up to a million of these ants. Somewhere in this apocalyptic scene there will be a nexus where all trails lead to, a writhing mass of bodies, the bivouac, up to 1m cubed of ants emitting a pungent odour you will never forget and seething with movement. Coming from wherever the swarm front is located there will be a 10cm wide column of ants heading home with pieces of insects and any other prey they have found. Never before will anyone have seen this so vividly presented in captivity, a sight that, previously would require a trip to the tropics and an expedition into the bush.
 
I guarantee two things about this exhibit. Firstly you will never get a return on any spend you ever make within your zoo collection on a new exhibit like this. In terms of publicity for your zoo and visitor impact this exhibit will stand above any other except the marquee attractions such as Pandas and Penguins or Chimps. The time visitors will spend watching the ants will outstrip any other exhibit you have, bar none. Once they see the ants and realise what  
 they are witnessing they will be awestruck. No other attraction can come close. 
Secondly, you will be the first establishment to house a permanent display of Army Ants in the world. Ever. I mentioned the attempt I made at Blackpool Zoo, around 1998. There has been only one other attempt, at the California Institute of Science. They managed to maintain a colony of Army Ants for a year, successfully after an intial failure. Many of the techniques we will employ will be based on their trial and error set up. 
We want to talk to any establishment who is interested, in principle, in having a look at this possibility. I have been purposely sketchy on detail regarding the exhibit and the techniques we have developed for the actual set up because I am keen to share these during a conversation with a potential client where I can talk about how we adapt our ideas to your facilities. I think it is important that you buy in to the concept first and see the potential. Also there is a great deal of work that has gone in to the design of this exhibit which I would want to safeguard from being copied.
In the first instance if you are interested in taking a further step with this and either have a building in mind that we could use or a site where one could be erected then please get in touch, I would love to talk to you.
Have a look at the other services we offer, below. I feel sure you will find something there of interest. Tropical House sells tropical plants, hosts Expeditions to Rain Forest countries wheere Army Ants and Leaf Cutting Ants are found. We theme rockwork and can help plan and design exhibits and scenes for backdrops etc. Our artists can paint and sculpt, we build and we can even produce an Education Policy for your establishment.      

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