Meat ants

25 October, 2009

Meat Ant - Iridomyrmex purpureus.
Meat Ant - Iridomyrmex purpureus.
Image: Alan Henderson
Source: Museum Victoria

Question: I was in the bush and I saw this huge gravel nest with lots of ants – what sort of ants are these?

Answer: There are hundreds of species of ant in Australia and one of the most obvious of these is what is commonly known as the meat ant, Iridomyrmex purpureus. These ants are generally found in the drier parts of Victoria and construct often huge nests, usually in sandy or gravel rich soil. The nests are often decorated with small pebbles of gravel and there may be many exit holes from the nest.

These nests can contain tens of thousands of workers and indeed the amount of ant traffic coming and going from the nest can be so large that it can create paths or ant highways leading to and from the nest. Meat ants are territorial and there can often be skirmishes where the edges of two colonies meet.

Meat ants are omnivores, meaning that they will consume a range of items for food; they are very good at catching prey and also scavenging animal and plant material. Research has suggested that the native meat ant may be able to play a part in controlling cane toad numbers. Meat ants forage during the day when cane toads are also active, while most of the native frog fauna are nocturnal making them safe from meat ant attack. The meat ants are quite capable of attacking and killing juvenile cane toads and taking them back to the nest as food for the ant larvae being tended in the nest.

Interestingly, meat ants lack a sting so you are safe from the painful sting that can be inflicted by jumping jacks and bull ants. However, if you stand on a meat ant nest they will usually pour out in large numbers and while they may lack a sting they do have jaws they can nip you with.

Meat ants are a native species and play an important role in the environment: they collect and remove dead material from the areas surrounding their nest and help to return the nutrients contained in this organic material back into the system. They also provide food for mammals like echidnas who can have up to 30 species of ant in their scats. As a result of their construction of large nests they also help to aerate the soil.

Comments (8)

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Daryl 29 December, 2012 09:09
my 3acre property in central vic is over run with those horrible meat ants, ive tryed lots of different ways to erradicate them but nothing has worked, theyre a real problem, please help?
Discovery Centre 29 December, 2012 12:43

Hi Daryl, the Museum is not able to advise on control of animals but I think you'll find it pretty tough to get rid of meat ants from a three acre block. They are a native species and are well adapted to surviving tough conditions. They do perfom an important role in the environment in helping to remove and recycle organic matter and as a food source for things like the echidna.

roger currie 23 January, 2014 18:11
my guys (front yard nest) love baby toads, which i collect for them. i do this as a mitigation programme ,to enable my native frog population to co exist , which includes , L.nasuta , L.peronii,, L.rubella, L.fallax,C.parinsignifera and L.terraereginea, which goes to show that toads and natives do coexist, mind you , i have no domestic pets, so have elapids and pythons.cheers roger
debra 4 January, 2016 13:26
I have 5 acres.our meat ants have grown so big we cant go outside during the day.we need help to kill 3 dogs dont go out at all during the day.we have7 big nests now...still making going t9 have to shift!
phil 28 May, 2016 14:31
Hi, We have a large meat ant nest on our block which has recently been co habited by another species of smaller black ants. Associated with the arrival of these newcomers has been the appearance of long open grooves radiating away from the nest in several directions. They are like a mini collapsed tunnels that the ants of both species use as paths. I've not seen this before and wonder if anyone can please explain this phenomenon. Cheers,Phil
Discovery Centre 14 June, 2016 12:18

Hi Phil,

In Australia, large Australian ant species are known to cohabit with small ant species, because the smaller ants pose no threat to the larger ants’ nest or the food sources, but they won’t tolerate medium-sized ants as they pose more of a threat. So this is not an unusual arrangement. Meat Ant colonies may be made up of a number of nests, sometimes spread over 500m and containing 60,000 or more ants, and they construct corridors between the nests and common food sources. The traffic alone can cause the corridors, but in addition they often clear grass and other impediments out of the way to make sure traffic is clear. As remarkable as it may seem, the deep pathways are solely the work of the ants.

alex 23 March, 2017 10:38
can meat ants feed the eggs a special food that makes it a queen and if not can you tell me how to lure the queen ant out of the nest alive. thanks
Discovery Centre 2 May, 2017 14:16

Hi Alex - we checked this with our staff from the Museum's Live Exhibits team, and they've supplied the following:

The type of adult ant produced depends on the level of nourishment provided to the larvae; normally larvae that are provided with the highest level of care and nourishment will become sexually mature winged females, or queens. Winged males and queens emerge in spring, normally after rain, mating occurs during Nuptial flight; after which the queen will found a new colony. Collecting a queen can be very difficult as meat ant nests can extend deep underground, up to 3m, this is where the queen and her brood live.

Hope that helps.

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