Dwight Peck's personal website

Anthills of the Jura

Message from the BBC: "We care!"

You might be thrilled and delighted by this Web page, depending upon the level of your passion for anthills. Also, you might not be, but your life may be the poorer.

All of Western Switzerland was atwitter in early May 2005 at the news that a BBC television film crew was here to film a documentary about our lovely anthills. Right here in the Jura mountains, in the Geneva-Lausanne area, we have (according to the excited headlines in La Côte, our local newspaper) the highest-density population of wood ant colonies in all of Europe.

So naturally we trotted out to view some on our own again and renew our enthusiasm for the little critters, which La Côte insists are the cute little fourmis DES bois, or ants of the woods, and not the reviled fourmis DU bois, or termites.

According to La Côte, the BBC film crew were sporting a specially-made camera lens that cost a quarter of a million pounds, which ought to have let them invade an awful lot of ant privacy, if that's what they had in mind. The really big celebrity news was that David Attenborough would be hosting the programme, though he was not actually to be tromping around in the wet forest himself.

Regardless of where the BBC team chose to film, the best place for anthills is in the forest between the Perroude du Vaud and the Perroude de Marchissy just west of the Chemin des Crêtes long-distance hiking path. [There are alleged to be 1,200 anthills in the 0.7 square kilometres around the Col du Marchairuz.]

And here we are (that's the royal we) on the 7th of May 2005, making our own little documentary. Look at the greenery on that one!

Careful viewers will note that, in the winter and spring (before they burst into life again), every anthill has a fist-size hole dug out of it. We don't know why. On rare occasions we find two holes, but overwhelmingly it is only one, and none has none. We have speculated that they are the traces of somebody trying to dig in and eat all the sleeping ants with a long curly tongue or something, but our present theory is that, with the onset of winter, some little forest mammal-guy burrows into each easily burrowed nest for his hibernation, and once he's in, the other little forest guys leave him alone and go on to the next one.

We have frequently given thought to mapping all these anthills with GPS coordinates, so that we could run statistics on them and find them again when necessary, except in times of discretionary war when the US military turns off the GPS global positioning system. But then we thought: why would anyone want to map anthills, or find them again? They're pretty "fungible" or interchangeable, after all, except to their residents.

One pattern we've noticed is worth mentioning, however -- the fourmis des bois do dearly love the sites of recent "forest management", i.e., tree-whacking, and you'll notice forestry debris in nearly all of these pictures.

This forest walk, going northeast more or less parallel to the Chemin des Crêtes, is extremely beautiful, by the way, in May as above, and in winter in the snow, but in late summer it's all snarled up with undergrowth and just not worth the trouble.

So unenlightened are we about the fourmis des bois that, when they tumble out of the anthill-innards again in the late spring, we don't even know if they're the same ones that retreated underground with the first snowfall last autumn or entirely new ones. David Attenborough will probably explain all that to us once he's got the TV show all sorted out. (Update: Ant expert Daniel Cherix says that they're hibernating and get waked up with springtime comes).

We did notice once, however, at an anthill still surrounded by late-spring snow on the ridge overlooking the Pré de St Livres, that the top of the 1-meter anthill had thawed out and thousands of ants were dashing wildly back and forth and in and out of little holes, and solitary scouts were scrambling down to the snow, then turning round to scurry back up with the bad news ("maybe next week!"). And they didn't look like newborns.

[Another update: Mr Attenborough came back, right here, for a new BBC Nature World documentary 'Attenborough and the Empire of the Ants 2017-2018', with amazing new camera technologies. "David Attenborough is in the Swiss Jura Mountains to discover the secrets of a giant. Beneath his feet lies a vast network of tunnels and chambers, home to a huge empire of ants. It is believed to be one of the largest animal societies in the world, where over a billion ants from rival colonies live in peace. Their harmonious existence breaks many of the rules for both ants and evolution, and raises some important questions. Through winter, spring and into summer, David turns detective to find the answers."]

We also don't know what their anthills are made of -- spruce needles, obviously, and maybe dirt and chopped-up leaves. But, but . . . have they been digested first? There are some questions that we don't really want to know the answers to.

Well, here we are at the Crêt de la Neuve. In just a moment we'll bushwhack back by a slightly different way and see if we can find any more photogenic piles of other species' housing arrangements.

The observation deck on Crêt de la Neuve had been without its flag and flagpole in recent times, but we are pleased to observe that in May 2005 they are back again.

More anthills playing hide-and-seek with us amid the forestry debris.

Two holes in this one, uncommon but not unique.

Our last anthill photograph for today, 7 May 2005, but a week or so later . . .

A parade of anthills, near the Chalet à Roch Dessus, 16 May 2005

Kristin testing them for consistency, back in November 2004.

Near Perroude du Vaud, 16 May 2004

Prime ant country -- foresty, wet, tolkieny and dark, overgrown with all kinds of decaying things, 16 May 2005.

Busy, busy

Marlowe T. Peck next to one of your bigger Swiss anthills in June 2003, this one down in the forest along the front of Mont Pélé. These things are said to grow to a maximum of 1 to 1.5 metres, but that big boy is taller than Marlowe.

Another important scientific question is: how fast do these things grow in size over the years? Let's find out. Come back here in ten years' time, and we'll do some before-and-afters, or instruct our beneficiaries to follow up on this issue into the indefinite future.

A digression for termites


Compare this babe!! -- not strictly an "anthill", more like a "termite mound", we're told. Biologists may quibble but, to some of us, an anthill is an anthill, even if it's in Uganda and enormous.

Uganda people learn to live in harmony alongside their termite mounds, as here in November 2005.

Here's a fleet of termite mounds between Mpigi and Mabamba Bay, with . . .

vegetation growing out of them all over.

Here's the narrator with one of his favorite termite mounds, near Mpigi, Uganda, November 2005.

Max and the termites of northern Australia, July 2006

More chronological anthills

A lovely anthill industriously built all around the tree branches, which are still sticking out of it, near Grand Cunay, June 2008

A December anthill in the Jura, with a big hole in it (12 December 2009)

Near Mont Sâla, 18 April 2010: the scouts are out and scurrying all over, but no masses of workers yet.

See also the article in Swisster.ch, "Ant metropolis wonder dominates Jura hiking spot", 25 March 2010, which leads off with the first photo on this page. [Sorry, that Swisster.ch website seems to be gone now (2016).]

An anthill with tentacles, along the Chemin des Crêtes near Crêt de la Neuve, 12 May 2010

A three-story anthill, hanging down off the cliffside like the Malibu Bluffs in a steep-sided limestone combe near the Petit Pré de Rolle, 15 May 2010.

A Bactrian anthill (two-humped) near Crêt de la Neuve, 16 May 2010

Ants staking their territorial claims, including in my socks

This huge anthill has taken a real beating, but the boys are hard at work getting it sorted out again. 13 June, near Grand Cunay.

Who could have been sadistic and soulless enough to have done that?

Well-camouflaged, in a thunderstorm, near La Bassine farm, 3 July 2010

GAME ON! Near the Chemin des Illanches path, Fourth of July 2010

Picked the bones clean. 11 July 2010 near Le Vermeilley

A baby anthill, Les Echadex, 17 July 2010

A three-holer, near the Cabane Rochefort, 21 December 2016

Many more anthills in the Jura, 6 May 2018

Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 26 September 2005, revised 17 July 2010, 8 March 2017, 28 August 2018.

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