Thursday, January 19, 2006

Leaf Cutter Ants

If you see pieces of leaf moving across your path, you are looking at one of the most fascinating activities in the rainforest - the work of the leaf cutter ants! The bits of leaf, approximately one half inch in diameter, can weigh as much as 12-30 times (opinions vary) the weight of the ant. The female ants climb a tree where they harvest the greenery and carry it to a nest that can be as much as 100 meters away. The nest is a huge hill and underground cavern, containing a fungus. I was puzzled when our guide mentioned fungus. Now that I am researching this subject to make this entry, I understand that the leaves are for the purpose of feeding the fungus and are not for the ants to eat. From the Insecta Inspecta World website comes this fascinating description:
"The average ant nest contains several of these gardens, each with an average life span of about 3-5 weeks. As leaves reach the nest, they are cut up into a gooey mulch and licked clean of all other fungus spores that may interfere with the growth of the harvest fungus. Licking the leaves also helps get rid of natural antibiotics. Next, in a clean terrace within the nest, the plant matter is laid out and covered with fecal droppings. The fecal matter acts as fertilizer and breaks down the proteins that the fungus can not. Finally, a piece of fungal hyphae (the growing, nutrient-using part of the fungus) is placed on top of the plant matter. As it grows, a part called the gongylidia (gong-ee-lid-ee-ah) of the fungus is fed to the members of the colony."
It would be like us making compost and then eating the compost.

Leaf cutter ants are adaptable. When their rainforest home is cut down to make way for farmland, they simply demolish the crops! Now that is an effective way to get back at mankind for disturbing their lives!

(photo is from the website of Cafe Cristina. Lots more about them to follow)


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