Shot through the (finger) and (bullet ants) are to blame

Shortly after I was stung by a bullet ant, Matt reassured me that “at least I’d get a hell of a blog post out of it!” At the time, I managed a weak smile through the tears, only barely able to comprehend much of anything besides pain. A day later, I write to you victorious! Having survived the pain, which is supposedly equivalent to being shot, I am feeling rather accomplished. 

Late Saturday afternoon, Nathanael, Zach, Annie, and I were feeling good. As collecting measurements became second nature, we spent less time at each Welfia regia palm we sampled. Aiming to collect data on frond color, epiphyte cover, percent herbivory, and palm size for 40 palms that day, one gigantic hymenopteran helped us decide that N=37 was probably sufficient. Reaching up to pull down a frond, I felt the pain shoot immediately through my right pointer finger, spreading instantly to my middle finger and soon my whole hand. I let out a horrible shriek and my fellow group members rushed to help me back to the lab, which luckily was not far away. No one ever said the words “bullet ant,” but none of us had a question in our minds that that was what had stung me. We had been briefed about them upon arrival at La Selva, but reassured that the likelihood of an encounter was low, as no FSP student had ever been stung.

 Bullet ants, Paraponera clavata, which are about 1 inch in length, use their extremely potent sting, which contains poneratoxin, a neurotoxic peptide, to defend themselves and their nests against intruders – even bumbling, well-intentioned intruders such as myself.

 For almost two hours following the sting, I was in agony as the throbbing and burning sensation spread to my elbow. Friends surrounded me through all of the afternoon and evening, fetching buckets of ice water and rolls of toilet paper to wipe my tears, carefully counting the Benadryl and ibuprofen tablets they handed me, and staying with me until the pain had subsided. After a few hours the pain was isolated in my finger again, and by the next morning was only a bit numb and stiff. It turns out I’m one of the lucky ones…for some people the pain lasts 24 hours.

 Next time I burn my tongue or stub my toe, I’ll have a new perspective on the situation. So thanks for that, P. clavata. I won’t be getting up in your business again anytime soon.

Pura vida,

Ellen

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Sampling Welfia palms