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The Las Vegas of Ants

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Captured in close proximity to the well-known Vulcan’s Throne of the Grand Canyon, images from Google Earth depict odd, desolate circles. These formations are visible from space and raised a few scientists’ eyebrows regarding what could have caused the dots to form so intricately and irregularly patterned across the land.

One scientist, Amelia Carolina Sparavigna, a physicist and specialist in satellite imagery and image processing, offered her own theory about the dots. She noticed the features on a Google Earth image while studying the Grand Canyon’s rim dimensions from her location at Polytechnic University of Turin in Italy.

Sparavigna noted the dirt circles among desert vegetation near Vulcan’s Throne and concluded the formations are caused by ant colonies. Scientists are now referring to these suspected colonies as the “Las Vegas of Ants,” because their presence indicate millions upon millions of ants living relatively undisturbed within this one untouched area.


Vulcan’s Throne is a volcano on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. It is a cinder cone volcano, a steep hill of fragments formed around a volcanic vent. At some time long ago, this volcanic vent erupted with gas-charged lava shooting violently in the air, then falling to the ground to form a mountain of the shards of ash, cinders or other fragments.

A prominent landmark of the Uinkaret volcanic field, this cinder cone is about a mile west of Toroweap overlook, one of the most picturesque stops for Grand Canyon tourists, where the Colorado River flowing below can be photographed. It is also only 56 miles west of the North Rim Headquarters of the Grand Canyon.

But this area is so hard to traverse, that no one has yet explored the “Las Vegas of Ants” on foot to determine its origins and confirm that ants are, indeed, the cause of the oddly dotted landscape.


The ants Sparavigna believes have taken over this patch of land near Vulcan’s Throne are red harvester ants. Scientifically named Pogonomyrmex barbatus, these ants thrive in the desert region of the Grand Canyon. They are five to seven millimeters in length, primarily eat seeds and thrive in the Arizona desert. Most of the water the ants need for nourishment comes from the seeds, making them perfectly suited for desert life.

Sparavigna explains that the dots are nesting mounds the red harvester ants build at diameters of up to 47 inches. The mounds are typically short, however. They are usually only less than four inches high and are surrounded by up to 108 square feet of bare ground. This makes them a good fit for the theories developed by Sparavigna to explain the Google Earth images.

Even Sparavigna knows her theory holds no weight until someone is able to get out into the desert and see the mounds up close. Only through visual contact can the presence of ants, and the oddly dotted image’s cause, be confirmed.

Of her theory, Sparavigna said, “It is quite probably that the observed patterned vegetation can have its origin from the interaction of vegetation and ants, but an on-site investigation is necessary to be sure of it.”


Google Earth is being used in amazing ways to enrich research, learning and exploration by scientists. While the supposed ant dots were not apparent in prior Google images from satellites of 2008, the iconic brand has improved its photographic resolution since that time. This opens a door to many other unique attributes of the Earth being discovered using this technology.

Armchair scientists, as well as those paid to conduct research in top institutions, can access Google Earth images to find variations in topography and ecology. These images provide a clearer view of how organisms evolve and interact over time, when they can be compared to several years’ of stock images of the same areas.

In fact, ants are not the first creatures visible from satellites by means of Google Earth. One location in Chad, at 10.903497 N,19.93229 E, shows an elephant herd enjoying grassland grazing. Some images have also provided views of prehistoric patterned rock formations, such as in Jordan and Kazakhstan.

But scientists have to be careful to not jump to conclusions when spotting anomalies. One such artifact provided by Google Ocean explorer made people excited that Atlantis may have been discovered in 2009. Unfortunately, the discovery was just the technology’s grid pattern being mistaken as sunken city streets.

A South Pacific island depiction from Google Earth made many believe a Manhattan-sized land mass existed. But this, too, was a digital mistake.


The Las Vegas of Ants has only just been discovered and has yet to be confirmed. But many believe that Sparavigna’s discovery is quite realistic and fits the profile of these underground tunneling hard workers.

While your own front yard likely does not show giant ant mounds on Google Earth, you may have noticed your own ant takeover during certain times of year. These invasions can be a minor inconvenience, or they can become a major nuisance. The key is to catch the problem early and ensure it is eradicated before your home becomes the new Las Vegas of Ants. For more information on pest control, contact your local exterminator as soon as possible.

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