A Scientist Looks at THEM!

There’s a hilarious quip by Sebastian Haff (Elvis), played by Bruce Campbell in Don Coscarelli’s under-rated Bubba Ho-Tep (2002).  It’s after Sebastian takes on a big fat scarab (“a big bitch cockroach…”) and the nursing home people are giving him a hard time:

I was in bed first, then I was awake ’cause the damn bugs woke me up.  You got bugs all over this place.

Bugs… Well, Mr. Haff, what kind of bugs have you been seeing?

Look, do I look like an ichthyologist to you? Big damn bugs, alright?

The scene is funny because 1) entomology is the study of insects, not ichthyology, and 2) the dialogue implies that Elvis knew nothing about the natural history of life. I found it all very amusing and witty because I am educated as a scientist with degrees in biology, geology and additional graduate training in botany.  I tend to look at the low-budget thriller from a different perspective.  I love the techno-quasi-scientific jargon especially prevalent in films from the 1950’s.  Perhaps my favorite is Warner Bros. THEM! (1954).  In this film we don’t have entomologists —Doctors Medford from the Department of Agriculture are myrmecologists! Myrmecology?  That’s the branch or sub-discipline of entomology studying ants. Myrmecophobia is —you guessed it the fear of ants!  Myrmecophagia is the pronounced inclination to eat ants. Anteaters are in the Genus Myrmecophaga.

Here’s an outtake from Scene 56 from Them!  This scene appears to show technicians working on or rigging one of the giant ants. That looks to me to be a large (about as big around as a man’s thigh) hydraulic cylinder supporting the ant’s thorax.  This gives us a glimpse that the ants were at least partially manipulated through the use of hydraulics.  Technician Bob Mattey, by contrast moved the giant squid tentacles and arms by way of pneumatics in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).

The level of detail on the ants from Them! is superb.  In Them!, Myrmecologist Harold Medford (Edmund Gwen) refers to the ants as being in the Genus Camponotus (cam-po-NOH-tus).  These are the carpenter ants, which typically have a flattened or slightly curved dorsal profile.  They nest in fungi-infested or softened wood.  The majority of western species nest in the soil. We see that in the ants of Them!

Also notice the hooks (spurs) on the legs. This is anatomically correct.  The antennae and mandibles are wrong though.  The mandibles of Them are dorsally flattened. Hunter gathering ants of the genus Camponotus have flattened mandibles for grasping (see remarkable photograph by researcher Alexander Wild, below).

Remember the sound of the ants?  Yes, some ants stridulate.  Here’s the sound of a Black Fire Ant Colony under distress:

Black Fire Ant Stridulation Alarm

It’s not that far off from the ants of Them!

As far as science goes, Them! was fairly well thought out.  Ants of the Family Formicidae are related to vespoid wasps.  They have a stinger and venom apparatus as portrayed in Them!  The venom is a complex cocktail of several groups of compounds and proteins, including formic acid, which has an acrid vinegar like odor.  Remember the wandering little girl (Sandy Drescher) at the beginning of Them!?  She is administered an odiferous cathartic of formic acid to bring her out of shock.

Oh, there are some physiological and physical flaws with the giant ants of Them!  If ants burrow by moving granular debris from tunnels one particle at a time I have often wondered how they grabbed on to tiny fragments of sand out in that desert.  I guess they could have dugs like moles, using their flattened mandibles as shovels.  Perhaps that is why they moved to the LA storm sewer system.  Then there’s the whole issue of breathing. Insects respire by transferring oxygen through a complex network of tiny tubules or trachea that interface with tissues on a cellular level.  They don’t have lungs and musculature (by way of a diaphragm) to actively respire.  A giant ant would suffocate because no gaseous diffusion is occurring in giant trachea.  The ants in Them! would require mammal-like respiration (lungs), or a comparatively smaller network of insect-size tracheoles of tremendous surface area.  Perhaps the ants of Them! are truly mutants.

Ant Stridulation:


Cool Ant Images (SEM):




Insect Respiration:


Remarkable Camponotus Ant Photography:


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