"" Writer's Wanderings: Costa Rica -- The Industrious Leaf Cutter Ants

Monday, June 25, 2018

Costa Rica -- The Industrious Leaf Cutter Ants

On our way to the Pickleball courts each day we would be on a sidewalk that was very busy. No matter what time of day, a long stream of leaf cutter ants would be busily making there way to wherever their nest was carrying their pieces of leaves cut from a tree that we soon discovered as we walked. I am always fascinated by these critters. They made a big impression on me the first time I saw them years ago in Costa Rica.

Leaf cutter ants have large jaws (but still too tiny to see) that cut the leaves and while some of the information I read said that it was like pruning, when we visited a small butterfly farm behind the family's homes, the complaint was, "They get into my mother's garden and ruin the plants." Guess the ants are better gardeners in the forest.

The ants can carry pieces of leaves up to 50 times their own weight which reminded me of that song High Hopes. These pieces of leaf are then put in the nest where they cultivate a fungus to feed the colony and the larvae. The fungus is unique to the leaf cutter nest. It is not found anywhere else.

The nest houses thousands to millions of ants and has multiple tunnels and channels. In the colony are various jobs including workers, guards, soldiers and reproducers. Workers vary in size. Larger ones carry the leaves and smaller ones tend to the fungal garden. Like a hive of bees, there is one large queen who can lay up to 50 million eggs in her lifetime.

One unusual fact about the ants is that they have been dealing with diseases that attack their fungal garden for millions of years. They actually somehow create an antibiotic to deal with the disease and develop new ones as time goes on. Researching the ants could lead us to some new antibiotic discoveries.
Leaf Cutter Queen Ant

Other research could lead to some discoveries about our energy resources. It's all mentioned in an interesting article at the National Science Foundation site.

Another article talked about the ants kind of being a predictor of rain. They move faster when they sense rain approaching. The leaves are a lot heavier when wet. That could explain the piles of leaves we saw where the usual column of ants were after we experienced a downpour one day. I could just hear them yelling "Drop it and run!"

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