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.