Parade of Leafcutter Ants

2013

Leafcutter Ants, Belize

Leafcutter ants are productive farmers with an elaborate society based on ant-fungus mutualism; i.e., a symbiotic relationship between the ant and the fungus. One day last month I had the joy of watching some especially clever ants taking a shortcut.

 

The ants get safe, underground living accommodations from the fungus, including a means to feed their ant larvae. And in turn, the ants keep the fungus fed and cleaned. Although the ants don’t actually eat from their fungal garden, they chew up the delivered leaves to decompose for the nest.

 

Many colonies contain approximately one million ants, but there can be as many as 8-10 million ants.

 

The ants bite off a piece of leaf and carry it back to the fungal garden, their underground nest. This is what we humans see as each ant carries a leaf chunk down the trail. An underground nest can grow to more than 98 feet (30 m) across, with additional chambers leading off of that.

 

Leafcutter Ant carrying leaf spear

There are many tasks in a community this large, and each individual has a specific role including the queen, several castes of workers, foragers, and soldiers.

 

Next to humans, they have the largest and most complex animal society on earth.

 

Leafcutter Ants Wikipedia

 

I’ve seen leafcutter ants in many tropical venues, and always on a forest trail or in grass. They often have a conspicuous trail, because there are so many ants moving back and forth that eventually they wear down the vegetation, as seen here.

 

Leafcutter Ant trails in grass (bottom right and leading from plant on top left)

 

Lodge Pool, Belize

 

One day Athena and I were swimming at the lodge pool, when we noticed little morsels of leaf parading across the floor tiles. There weren’t that many, maybe one ant every foot (.30 meter) or so. I don’t think other people would have even noticed them, but I am always on the lookout for leafcutters, because I think they are one of the most amazing creatures on earth.

 

The stamina! The industriousness! The tenacity of a leafcutter ant is completely inspiring. Their strength is astounding. They can carry 12-20 times their body weight.

 

After some investigation, we discovered they were taking a rainforest shortcut through the pool area. They entered at one end of the pool enclosure, walked across the pink floor tiles, and exited at the other end. This was about a 50-60 foot long (15-18 m) trail. They traveled along the floor edge, near the plantings, under the lounge chairs.

 

There were places where water was on the floor, which upset the parade. A simple small puddle threw off their scent. Here they circled around for a half minute or so, but would then stabilize, get back on track, and eventually find their way to the exit rock.

Leafcutter Ant disoriented by water spot

Each one took the exact same trail, and they all vanished at the same place. The exit rock is in the center of this photo below–there was a gap between the second and third rocks, about the size of a fist.

Rock exit, between second and third rocks

 

Ant with leaf exiting, in shadow of rock on right

As the plot thickened, we went outside the pool enclosure, thinking there would be a continued trail. But instead they were gone. They had vanished underground, reached their destination. There we stood in our dripping pool clothes, fascinated.

 

It was a very hot, humid day; all the birds were resting, all the humans were resting. But the leafcutter ants, they just kept marching.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Leafcutter Ants, Costa Rica

 

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88 thoughts on “Parade of Leafcutter Ants

  1. Way cool πŸ‘ I have followed ‘game’ trails in mountain forests aided with compass and a topographical map. Never though of following ‘Ant Trails’ ❗️ I can’ imagine them foraging 10 to 20 miles from their nest to have helped me though πŸ˜‰

    • You’re so right, Dina, the insect world is a fascinating one for observing and enjoying. I’m glad I could bring this little ant to the human world today. Thank you for your visit and wonderful comment.

  2. I’ll never forget the first time I ever saw this ant. What an incredible critter!
    Your fine photos and story do a wonderful job of passing along the excitement
    and thrill it was to watch these guys work away the day!
    Have a fun weekend Jet!

    • Your comment gave me a big smile, Eddie, because I, too, will never forget the first time I saw a leafcutter ant. Memorable little guys, aren’t they? Thanks for your delightful comment, always a pleasure.

    • Their society is incredibly complex. They could probably benefit from a union, because I think they work too many hours. πŸ˜‰ Always a delight to have you stop by, Sylvia, thank you.

    • I am pleased you enjoyed learning about the leafcutter ants today, Hien. It is a great joy to share this fascinating creature. I hope you, too, have a great weekend. No doubt many birds on the east coast for you to marvel and share with us.

  3. Nests as big as 30 meters?! I don’t know if I should be amazed or horrified. Maybe the leaf cutters could be enlisted in trail building projects. It looks like for their size they do an incredible job of clearing the way. I found myself at poolside with you and Athena. I would have been belly down on that floor seeking out those little leaf luggers. Fascinating post Jet. Again I had absolutely no idea.

    • If you had been with us that day, Sue, we would’ve had a blast. We were the only ones at the pool, so we could freely frolic with the ants. We have seen plenty of nests in rainforests, and it’s amazing how big they get. We steer clear, that’s for sure. May thanks, dear Sue, really enjoyed your comment, as always.

    • Yes, they are amazing. And to watch each one taking the same route, made it clear that they were using signals, no doubt scent, but who knows, some other signal could’ve been going on too. Enjoyed your thought-provoking comment, Anneli, thank you.

    • Yes, I agree, Janet, the ant kingdom is astounding. I’ve met a few folks and read a few books by ant aficionados, and it’s easy to join in on their fervor. I’m happy you knew about the leafcutters, and that this post revisited your enjoyment of them. Many thanks.

    • Yes, the ants are not the easiest creature to capture on film, because they’re so tiny, and so very far away, and laying down on the ground isn’t a good idea. lol. I’m very glad you enjoyed the leafcutters today, Maggie, thank you.

  4. I smiled all the way through this one! Loved the way you were determined to figure out where the ants were going, and love the industry and stamina of these little workers. I’ve been struggling to move my own body weight by bike this week, and these mighty creatures have put those efforts in the shade.
    Well, just reading about all this industry has worn me out – I’m off to take it easy for the weekend.
    Thanks, Jet, always a delight, and have a great weekend!

    • Really enjoyed your comment, as always, pc. Those little ants make us all feel like slugs, don’t they? I’m glad you’ll be taking it easy this weekend, last weekend’s super adventure no doubt took all your energy and more. Smiles and thanks to you, my friend. Cheers to Mrs. pc and Scout too.

    • Yes, that’s true, Amy. You can see how that army of ants in the first photo are organized and carrying out their orders. Thanks so much for your great comment and visit.

    • It is a total delight to share the tropics with you, Craig. Here’s what is challenging about the tropics: it’s always hot and muggy and buggy. So until you make it down there, you can have the pleasure of enjoying the adventures without the debilitating heat and bugs. I’m sure you would only get in about 10 words a day, instead of the thousands like you usually do. lol. My thanks.

      • I have been to buggy Alaska a few times, and the muggy East Coast. I can interpolate from there. PS: I’m writing some Science Fiction set in San Francisco now.

      • I gasped when I read your post script, Craig. I am thrilled to hear your Sci Fi in SF is coming down the pike. Please feel free to use the Contact tab to email me if you have any logistical SF questions or needs. Great place for Sci Fi….

    • Yes, we don’t have many opportunities to see leafcutter ants in the U.S., I saw them once in Texas, but all the other times south of the U.S. border. So it is a total thrill to bring them to you, montucky. (Today I was standing in grass (Calif.) and an ant bit me. haha.)

    • Fortunately we were refreshed by the cool water of the pool, gave us some stamina and recharged us to venture onward. I’m glad I could bring this tiny world to you, Jan, thanks so much for stopping by.

  5. The ants are tiny but in large quantities are extreme powerful, the do have their colonies well organized and they plan everything and execute their orders to the letter. They have strategies for war, the have herds of aphids which they milk for their babies, they cultivate moss and have nursing systems to take care of eggs and little ones. The have dumps for their garbage. Scouts, armies, police, engineers, etc etc. All the things that humans do. Years ago I saw a movie “The Naked Jungle” By Charlton Heston and it’s very interesting about the Marabunta ants. Check it out. Thanks for the great post my friend. πŸ™‚

    • Great insight on the beauty of ants, HJ. When you are lucky enough to see a big army marching down the trail, it is crystal clear how organized and yes, powerful they are in numbers. Many thanks, dear friend, always a joy to “see” you.

  6. So do you think that these ants are humming to a John Philip Sousa march as they make their way along their parade route?!?!?!:) I think yes

    • Glad you enjoyed the leafcutter ants, Wayne. That’s a good question you pose. Yes, there is leaf preference. But it’s the fungus that makes the demands, not the ants. If a leaf is toxic to the fungus, it is rejected. The ants pick up on chemical signals from the fungus, and learn to bring the non-toxic, acceptable leaves. How amazing is that?!? Always a joy to have an exchange with you, my friend, thank you. This week you graced us with the magic of orcas, and I with the magic of ants–two very different creatures, but both so fascinating.

    • Yes, you’re right, Walt, they just keep marching on, completing their tasks. Now, there could be complaining and we do not hear it, as you suggest, but I don’t think so. They were pretty free-flowing and productive, something we don’t see in complainers. That’s a fun thing to think about…thanks!

  7. It’s interesting how I accept some insects as ‘ok’ while I loathe others. Ants fall in the former category, although I might feel a lot differently about them if I suffered a home invasion.

    I’ve never seen ants in a parade like this before. The ones I see are usually scurrying around – seemingly randomly – as individuals. I too would have been immediately fascinated by seeing a parade of leaves going by!!

    • Yes, it is a fascinating sight to see little green leaves marching down the trail. Often the ants are so small, that all you see is the leaf, not the ant. I’m delighted I could introduce you to the leafcutter ants, Joanne. I enjoyed your visit, thank you.

  8. Fascinating! Had to smile to think that you two weren’t resting either… as you investigated, photographed, and plotted this post for us! Thank you for YOUR stamina and industriousness!

    • Well fortunately the 100 degree day was made much more comfortable by a long time in the pool, including some of our investigating time. And it was really so much fun to do. I’m glad to be able to bring you the leafcutter ants, dear Nan, thanks so much for your visit.

  9. Fascinating … and so entertaining. Thank you and Athena for bringing this to us today. I’ll never see a moving leaf in the ground in the same way!

  10. Thanks for highlighting these fascinating creatures. We also saw them in Belize and probably other places as well. Your tale about the shortcut was so compelling!

  11. fascinating! thank you for another delightful post, Jet. ants are known for their tenacity and are very hardworking. to see a close-up photo of a leaf-cutter ant at work is an awesome treat! thanks to Alexander! πŸ™‚

  12. Fascinating, Jet. Ants are amazing to watch and the added lugging of a leaf makes them quite fun to watch. You did some good detective work spotting these. πŸ™‚ Terrific topic for a post.

  13. What a fascinating tale – or should I say trail? I am astounded that they wear down the grass on their path as much as they do – quite incredible. Amazing creatures!

    • I’m delighted you enjoyed the leafcutter ants, Alastair. I, too, found it astounding that they wear down the grass like that. Inside the forest there are often two trails: one for the humans and wildlife, and the other one paralleling, only about a hand-width wide, for the leafcutters. Thanks so much for your visit, always a treat.

    • It really was so much fun investigating those leafcutters, glad you could share in the fun, Bertie. Great that they are one of your favorites too. Thank you so much.

    • Yes, I agree, Inese, we are part of such an amazing world. And I’m glad I could bring the leafcutters to your side of the world today, thanks so much for stopping by.

  14. What a wonderful glimpse into a world many of us never see. Personally, I’ve never seen leaf-cutter ants, but I often see leaf-cutter bees.

    Odd as it may seem, there are any number of places on a boat where they’re willing to set up shop. Small vents on the sides of boats will do, especially the small ones shaped like elongated scallop shells.When I first noticed bees flying up into them with uniform, perfectly cut pieces of leaf or grass, I couldn’t imagine what was going on. When I figured it out, I was amazed.

    The bees are solitary (one article describes them as congenial and tireless) while the ants live in colonies. Both are wonderful, and I’m especially glad to know about the ants now, so I can watch for them.

    • Oh my goodness, I had no idea there were leafcutter bees on this amazing planet of ours. I loved hearing about them, Linda, and thank you so much for introducing me!

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