My favorite ant in all the world. I first saw this phenomenal creature in the Amazon, and have seen it many times in other New World tropical rainforests. Aside from humans, leafcutters form the largest and most complex animal society on Earth (Wikipedia). They can be found primarily in South and Central America and Mexico.
Upon first sight, they look like green leaves marching on the trail. There are long lines of them–so long you can’t see where the parade starts or stops. A closer view reveals that each piece of leaf is being carried by one ant. The leaf is about three times bigger than the ant.
There is so much activity on a rainforest trail, it is easy not to notice them. Mosquitoes are biting, the mud is slippery, unfamiliar creatures are screaming and squawking, and you’ve just been told to watch out for “monkey splatter.” But after awhile you get your bearings, and might wonder: why are so many ants carrying leaf bits down the trail?
They have just bitten a leaf morsel off a live tree and are now carrying it to their nest. Once the ant arrives at its destination, it carries it’s green load down the center hole, and disappears from human sight. From the outside the nest is a nondescript dirt mound with a hole in the center. But whoa, there is so much bustling activity inside this huge world. The nests can eventually spread to 6,000 square feet with 8 million individuals in it!
The Nest. It is actually a growing, living fungus. The ants raise their young here, and need this fungus to feed their larvae. Equally as dependent, the fungus needs the ants to nourish and tend it. The fresh-cut leaves provide enzymes for the fungus to flourish. In addition, the ants provide antibiotic bacteria to keep the fungus healthy. This process is called ant-fungus mutualism.
Once the transporter leafcutters take the leaf pieces down into the hole, another group starts chewing. They chew the leaves into a paste, breaking it down for the fungus to use. As ant communities will be, other castes of leafcutters work earnestly to do their specific job. You can read more about leafcutter ants by clicking here.
With all this ant life and enterprise taking place beside my two colossal feet, I figure it’s the least I can do not to step on them.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander