Ants can sure be an annoying pest for humans to deal with, but a pest for humanity can be a food source for many other species. In fact, there are hundreds of species that eat ants on a regular basis!
Ants are relatively high in protein and fat – so some species can survive on a diet exclusively made of ants. Plus, ants are a prolific and abundant organism which makes them a great, reliable food source.
In fact, there is an entire group of organisms that engages in myrmecophagy – a feeding behavior defined by the sole consumption of ants or termites. Myrmecophagous organisms eat ants and termites, exclusively.
All of the organisms below eat ants as part of their diet, and this list is not exhaustive. There are many, many animals that eat ants. But, these are some of the most well-known animals that regularly consume ants. You should definitely check this list out because some of these wild organisms can be encouraged to visit your garden to keep it ant-free!
Mammals That Eat Ants
Some mammal species are voracious ant-predators! A few of the mammal species below survive almost entirely on ants. Let’s check out what eats ants amongst mammals.
As their name implies, these medium-sized mammals feed almost entirely on ants. Living exclusively in South and Central America, these critters have a long snout and an even longer tongue.
There are several species of anteater that range in size and distribution, but they all share a myrmecophagous diet – subsisting entirely on ants and termites. Their long tongue is also sticky, allowing them to stick it straight into an anthill and get a whole mouthful of ants at once!
Though it may look like an anteater, the aardvark is actually distantly related. In fact, it has come to develop a similar body-shaped based on convergent evolution.
The ancestors of both anteaters and aardvarks started to independently prey on ants, which led to similar adaptations. Like anteaters, aardvarks have a sticky tongue and long digging claws to dig into ant and termite nests.
Unlike the anteater, aardvarks are native to the African continent and the two species do not overlap. Interestingly, the aardvark is more closely related to elephants and manatees.
This species came to fame recently as a possible source of the global coronavirus outbreak. As the only mammal that is covered in hard scales, it is certainly unique.
Pangolins are native to parts of Africa and Southern Asia, and their diet consists of mostly ants and termites. Their hard scales help them defend against large predators like lions and tigers, while they have similar features of sharp claws and a long snout that helps them gather ants for food.
Some pangolin species are proficient climbers, and they use their powerful tails and claws to strip the bark from trees and search for insects underneath.
As one of the only creatures on this list without a long, narrow snout, it should not be surprising that the sloth bear does not survive solely on ants or termites. While they are expert hunters of ants and use their large claws to dig up the larval chambers of ant colonies, they also supplement their diets with fruits, plant matter, carrion, and sometimes small mammals.
These bears are native to parts of India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. While they are the most insectivorous bear species, other bear species (like black bears in North America) also sometimes feed on ant colonies.
Believe it or not, ants are a delicacy in many parts of the world. Cultures as far apart as Mexico and India treat themselves to ants on a regular basis. However, you shouldn’t just go into your backyard and start eating the first ants that you find.
Many ants secrete toxic and noxious substances that are extremely distasteful. Most cultures that eat ants eat either very specific species of ants that have a pleasant flavor, or they only eat the larval form of the ants that are much more palatable.
That being said, ants are high in protein and insect-based foods are being more widely accepted in many countries. Insect-based foods could help solve some of the issues of modern agriculture that are accelerating climate change!
As Darwin first noted so long ago, birds that specialize on insects often have long, pointed beaks that help them catch many insects quickly and accurately. There are many bird species that have an ant-based diet, and the list below includes just a few.
Some birds even engage in a behavior known as “anting” – where they rub dead ants on their body as a deterrent to predators and to fight fungus and disease with plant substances that the ants have accumulated!
The antbirds are a family of more than 230 species native to Central and South America that subsist almost entirely on ants and other small insects.
Most antbirds feed in the understory of the tropical rain-forest, hunting through the branches for all types of insects. These birds are the perfect size to hop through the forest and have long, sharp beaks for picking insects off of trees and out of leaf litter.
Closely related to antbirds, the antpittas are about the same size. Though the antpittas only contain about 50 species, they occupy a very similar niche to the antbird.
Some antpittas are North American species and the group ranges all the way to South America. Antpittas tend to spend more time on the forest floor, and often have dull coloration to blend into the forest floor.
Their legs are slightly longer and their tails are slightly shorter, both of which are traits that are thought to aid them in hunting ants on the ground.
Flickers are a genus of woodpeckers that range from North to South America. Unlike other woodpeckers that tend to hunt mainly on trees, the flickers are known to frequent the ground more often.
This also means that they eat a lot more ants than other woodpeckers! Some species that live in the desert make their nests in cacti and hunt insects on the ground.
While many of the above species may not be common around your house, there is one tiny bird that is ubiquitous to many parts of the world.
Imported to North America and many parts of the world in the earliest days of European colonization, this tiny bird is now found in almost every corner of the globe. Though the house sparrow will feed mostly on grains when given the chance, it is also an opportunistic insect feeder and won’t shy away from a large mound of unprotected ants.
Sparrows can be a great form of insect control in any yard!
While there are many insects that are general insectivores, there are a few species that have focused on ants and termites exclusively. Let’s check out a few of these myrmecophagous reptiles…
Also known as “horny toads” or “horntoads,” these lizards are native to the United States and parts of Central America. These lizards have very distinct scales that form into ridges of horns on their sides, back, and the crests of their head.
Most horny toads feed entirely on ant colonies, which they slowly pick up with their sticky tongues. Many species of horned lizards also have the ability to squirt blood out of their eyes! Their blood is loaded with toxins that they accumulate from eating large amounts of harvester ants, making their blood distasteful to canines and felines.
With nearly global distribution, these snakes are surprisingly hard to find. Blind snakes are some of the smallest vertebrates, and some are no larger than a quarter when coiled up.
However, many blind snakes feed almost exclusively on ant and termite larvae. These tiny snakes are mainly fossorial – living entirely underground. Using scent glands, they follow the scent trails that ants have laid down to track down a nest and eat as many eggs as they can.
Despite their tiny size, these snakes can eat an enormous amount of ant eggs and larvae over time.
Containing more than 300 species, these toads are found in North America, Asia, and Africa. While the many different species occupy very different niches across the globe, they all have one feature in common: very narrow mouths!
Their mouths are narrow because these toads specialize in eating ants and termites. Their forward-facing eyes help them aim and capture large numbers of ants with ease.
Arthropods (Insects and Arachnids)
The arthropods (including insects, crustaceans, arachnids, and other groups) is a massively diverse group of organisms. So, it should be no surprise that many of them feed on the abundance that ants provide. Here are a few of the most voracious ant-predators:
As their name implies, these insects are hungry for ants. There are about 2,000 different species, which have a worldwide distribution. Antlion larvae build pits in loose soil and wait for passing ants to fall in.
When the ants fall in, the loose soil is hard to climb and the ants fall right into the massive jaws of the antlion. The antlion will remain buried at the bottom of its pit as it gains size. Ultimately, the antlion undergoes metamorphosis into a very large adult that looks something akin to a dragonfly. Some of these adults also prey on ants and small insects, while others have adapted to feed on the nectar of plants.
Some species of Phorid Fly in the genus Phoridae have a very special way of predating ants. The adult female flies hover above a colony and select a healthy worker ant. Using a sharp ovipositor (egg-laying tube), the female lays her eggs directly into the ant at the flexible areas of the exoskeleton around the shoulder.
As the larva hatches and develops, it eats its way around the ant’s head. This effectively destroys the ant’s brain and the phorid fly larvae can take control of the ant’s body. The infected ant leaves the colony and dies in a sheltered place, where the larvae inside the ant can undergo metamorphosis and hatch into a new, adult fly.
This genus of Phorid Flies is actually being considered as a way to control invasive Fire Ants in the Southern United States!
Assassin bugs are very widely distributed, and you have likely seen them around your home. They have a long mouthpiece that they use to inject other insects with venom. The venom digests their insides and they use the long mouthpiece to suck out all the nutrient-rich goop inside.
Some species, like Acanthaspis petax (seen above), have evolved to prey almost entirely on ants. This species actually covers its body in dead ants, providing a sinister type of camouflage so it can easily invade an ant colony and feed freely.
Jumping spiders and wolf spiders often feed on ants, especially in their smaller life stages. These arachnids are not alone, as most spiders will feed on ants when given the chance.
In fact, anywhere there are ants there is likely a species of spider that feeds on these ants. You can encourage spiders by minimizing your use of pesticides and moving spiders outside when you find them in your home.
Believe it or not, one of the best predators of ants is – other ants! Army ants are especially good ant predators, as they are slightly larger and can quickly kill and harvest other species.
Some species of ant, such as Raider Ants, live entirely by feeding off other ant colonies. These ants go through a “foraging phase,” when they raid other ant colonies to steal their food, larvae, and eggs.
The Raider Ants return to their nest, eat their spoils, and lay more eggs for the next cycle. While it may seem counterintuitive, sometimes the best way to combat bad ants like fire ants is to promote native species that will fight them off!
Ants are what eats ants the most in many areas of the world.