Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Leaf Cutter Ants

Do you know about leaf cutter ants? What a crazy agricultural community! They use fresh leaf matter as a substrate to grow a particular type of fungus that's a food for the community. When a queen ant is going to start a new colony, she carries some of the fungus' mycelium in her mouth to start the new crop.

Within a single colony different ants have different jobs based upon their body size::

~ the smallest ants care for their fungal gardens and care for the young ants
~ the slightly larger ants are the first line of defense for the colony. They patrol the area attacking anything that interferes with the foraging line. {We saw some of these guys riding on the leaf fragments that the larger ants were transporting!}
~ the second to largest ants are the foragers. They go out and collect the fresh leaf matter that is taken back to the colony and used as the nutrients for their fungal gardens.
~ the largest ants in the colony are soldiers that help to defend the nest and clear trails for the foragers.

It's amazing to be walking in the Costa Rican rainforest and come upon a line of the leaf cutters carrying leaf fragments back to their colony. The leaves look like large sails. Below are two ants passing in opposite directions.

It's easy to know when you come upon a leaf-cutter colony because the area above the colony has been completely cleared of low vegetation. You just see the brown soil of the forest, and a few holes where the ants enter and exit the colony.

Sarah and I were both lamenting the fact that our pictures don't completely capture how amazing it was to come upon these ants...but we have the memory, and if we're lucky, maybe we'll find another colony or two in Brazil next month!

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