Antroducing: The elusive ants of Spooky Forest (Temnothorax unifasciatus)

Let me tell you a story. A long time ago, in the Danube Delta, lived a woman. She was engaged to be married to a Cossack man, famous for his bravery. The trouble was, that before she got engaged she had rejected another suitor, a Turk man. The Turk was so upset, that he decided to gather some friends and abduct the woman on her wedding day. Of course, the woman's family and her Cossack husband-to-be took exception to that. The Turks fled into a nearby forest, called The Dark Forest by locals, or Karaorman in Turkish. The others pursued, and finally caught up with them near a well, called the Hunters' Well. There they fought, the Cossack and his friends overpowering the Turks and killing them just as they kneeled to ask for mercy. On the place they died, an oak tree grew shortly after,  taking a strange, twisted shape - they call it The Kneeling Oak today and it is over 600 years old.

The Kneeling Oak. It is old. Very old.

With this cheery story in mind we left on the morning of our fourth day in the Danube Delta, our rented boat taking us deep into the delta and to Karaorman, the dark forest. The views were fantastic, the boat often taking us through veritable tunnels of greenery, and we spotted lots of birds, including a couple of swanlings from up close. After about an hour and a half we disembarked at the edge of a small village, the ruins of an abandoned sand processing factory prominent on the shore.

Yellow waterlilies. 
The view from Karaorman docks.

From the docks we were picked up by our driver, who ushered us into an ancient Nissan Patrol - you need a 4x4 to get around the sandy tracks in the area. We drove through yellowing pastures populated by placid cows towards the forest itself, and once we were under the trees, the name made a lot of sense. This was a wild forest, with the trees growing close together, their limbs twisty and tangly. We stopped at a couple of 400-year old oaks, which looked very impressive and gnarly, with thick trunks and labyrinthic branches. But our main interest lay beneath those branches, in the hundreds, if not thousands, of acorns scattered on the ground. Aside for making nice mementos for my nephew, they had a chance of containing a Temnothorax colony - the tiny ants that use the hollowed-out acorns as a nest.

Dark forest, indeed.

Although we spent quite a bit of time poking at those acorns (much to our driver's puzzlement), we did not manage to find any ants living in them. We did find some beautifully patterned ants swarming up the side of an oak tree, but these were not the ants that we were looking for.

Pretty, but not what we were looking for.

Our last stop in Karaorman was at The Kneeling Oak, a truly impressive tree. There it became obvious why 4x4 cars were required for this little trek, as a minivan had gotten thoroughly stuck in the sand, and required the help of our plucky little Nissan to get out. After taking a few pictures, we recommenced the search for acorn ants, with as much success as the first time.


Some colourful fungi growing inside a crack in The Kneeling Oak.

Just as our driver was putting out the last boarding call, I spotted a likely-looking acorn under the 'kneeling' branch of the tree and let out a victorious roar - there were ants living inside! Hastily placing the acorn in a ziplock bag, we took off with our prize and headed back to the docks.

The ant-inhabited acorn was located somewhere around here.

Our find was a bit of a gamble though - sure, there were ants inside the acorn, but would there be a queen as well? Stay tuned to find out the fate of the Karaorman ants and the other reason why we call them "elusive".