Picture a wasp with its wings ripped off, and you'll have a good approximation of a bulldog ant. The resemblance is no coincidence: Ants are believed to have evolved from wasplike ancestors some 140 million years ago. The bulldog ant has long been considered one of the oldest ant lineages. But some recent studies suggest that bulldogs appeared no earlier than 100 million years ago, along with an explosion of other ant species that may have accompanied the rise of flowering plants. Nevertheless, they exemplify the anatomy and behavior experts believe the archetypal ancestor of all ants possessed: a big body with long legs, keen vision, venom-laced stingers, and relatively solitary habits.
While fossilized specimens reveal that bulldog ants were once widespread across the globe, today they are found only in Australia. Bulldog expert Bob Taylor brought me to a eucalyptus woodland near Nowra, a town south of Sydney, to track red bulldog ants, which nest there in sandy ground. We found them preying on bees and other ant species, especially carpenter ants. This is dangerous quarry, because more "advanced" ants such as carpenters can quickly recruit aid by sending chemical signals to their nestmates—an ability bulldogs lack. With her superior vision, however, a bulldog hunter can race around a carpenter ant, leap onto its back, and thrust in her stinger before her bewildered victim has a chance to marshal a counterattack. Primitive, perhaps. But she gets the job done.
To capture images of bulldog life below ground, Taylor and I had to set up a life-size artificial nest and populate it with a colony taken from the wild, including its queen. We blew carbon dioxide into the nest entrance to put the ants to sleep, and started digging like mad, gathering ants as we went. Here and there stashes of larvae and pupae lay in flat-bottomed chambers, and we collected those too. But the queen in a bulldog colony dives to the farthest extremity of a nest at the slightest disturbance. By the time we finally bagged her two yards (two meters) beneath the surface, the ants had awakened, and our bodies were quivering from repeated stings. After letting the colony settle in to the artificial nest for a couple of days, I spent the next few weeks observing the more tender side of this ferocious insect.