Leaf-cutter Ants

In an effort to blog more consistently -as well as brush up on the natural (and not-so-natural) history of the places I visit – I’m going to attempt to write about the animals, plants and other interesting tidbits that I run across in my travels. If you have any requests or topics you’d like to learn more about, let me know! Todays topic is leaf cutter ants.

Leaf-cutter ants are amazing critters. They’re perhaps the worlds first true agriculturists, starting their farms way before humans ever planted a seed. There are 15 species of leaf-cutter ants and they’re only found in the New World from Louisiana and Texas all the way down to Argentina. If you’ve ever seen an army of the tiny critters scurrying on the forest floor, you probably noticed the fingernail sized pieces of green vegetation that they carry on their backs, which look like sails on a ship. They tote these cut leaves back to their nest (which can house between 5 and 8 million ants and have over 1,000 subterranean chambers), where the farmers ‘grow’ and ‘cultivate’ a colony of fungus. Their crop consists of a fungus garden, which is actually a mass of thread-like tendrils called hyphae which grow together to form a mycelium. When the foraging ants drop off their clipped leaves back at the nest, other ants take the vegetation and cut it into even smaller pieces. It is then crushed and molded into moist pellets and ‘fed’ to the fungus, which thrives on the nutrients extracted from the crushed leaves.

In return for the food, the fungus is essential for feeding the larvae of the ants. Thus, this is a symbiotic relationship – the fungus needs the ants to provide it with food (leaves) and the ants need to fungus to provide their larvae with nourishment.

Farming the fungus mass is hard and constant work for the leaf-cutter ants. They are constantly foraging, carrying, kneading, cleaning, and picking out unwanted weeds from the fungi. To put their hard work into perspective, I found this passage in a book from our library – “If we magnify the operation of [foraging leaf-cutter ants] to human scale, so that an ant’s 6 millimeter length grows into 5 feet, the forager runs along the trail for a distance of about 9 miles at a velocity of 16 miles per hour. Each successive mile is covered in three minutes and 45 seconds, about the current human world record. The forager picks up a burden of 660 pounds or more (yes, that’s 10-20 times its own weight!) and speeds back to the nest at 15 miles per hour – hence a four minute mile.” Amazing!


2 Responses

  1. Ah, to be strong and as fast as a cutter ant…………

  2. I’ve been seeing these leaf cutters everywhere! Now I can appreciate them so much more. Thanks!

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