Leaf-cutter ants

Unbelievable survivors

Leaf-cutter Ants

Leaf-cutter Ants

Anyone who has traveled through the Americas knows them anyway, a stream of ants all carrying leaves with them. It looks like a mini highway that can go on for 30 meters. We’re talking about leaf-cutter ants of course. For tourists a source of amazement, for local farmers and vegetable gardeners a real plague that just eats your beloved trees and plants bare. By the way, did you know that there are 47 different species of leaf-cutter ants?

Many people think the ants cut off the leaves to eat for themselves, but nothing could be further from the truth. The ants cut off the leaves and transport them to a fungus in their nest. A partnership with quite a history, it turns out.

From survivor to farmer

But how does that fungus work and how did ants ever get there? According to genetic research, Attini ants began farming about 50 million years ago. Just for comparison, as humans we only started farming about 12,000 years ago. All 250 species of Attini ants known in the world breed fungi. Among the leaf-cutter ants the fungus is completely domesticated, not found outside the nests and completely dependent on the good care of the ants. Just as you shouldn’t let most dairy cows or lap dogs loose in a wild landscape anymore either.

Ants started farming at the same time that dinosaurs went extinct. When with the extinction of all kinds of plants, food was no longer so readily available, they switched to keeping fungi. After all, those did like the conditions at the time. So it was a smart move by the ants to switch to fungi as a food source. Meanwhile, the ants have physically evolved to the point where they can no longer live without the fungi.

Taking care of your food

When you look at a colony of ants, you quickly see that there are ants of all different sizes. The largest ants are the scouts, searching for suitable flowers and leaves, the middle ants use their powerful jaws to cut off and transport pieces of leaves. Their mandibles vibrate up to 1,000 times per second for this purpose, so they are as effective as a chainsaw. Over time, the mandibles wear out and at this point the ants change their job and become leaf carriers. The smallest ants chew the leaves into a mush that the fungus can digest. In addition, the smallest ants also nurse the fungus. The largest ants can weigh hundreds of times as much as the smallest ones. In addition, of course, there are many other roles such as queen, soldiers, waste pickers, leaf inspectors, pest control, etc.

As soon as a young queen starts her own colony, she takes a piece of the fungus from her old nest into her oral cavity. But it is difficult as a new queen to build a kingdom. Many try, few succeed!

Top Athletes

It’s a powerful thing they do, those leaf-cutting ants. In one night, they can strip an entire tree of its leaves. Moreover, they can carry 10 to 50 times their own weight with their jaws. To put this into perspective, this is like trying to carry an adult grizzly bear between your teeth. Although that one probably does struggle a bit more.

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