Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Creature Feature: Leafcutter Ants.

Ants are a pest that nobody (except hardcore entomologists) really likes. Having ants in one's house is a sign of poor hygiene, even though they live in organized communities with classes just like ours. If you think class is a mobile thing, you need to rethink your culture. The only real difference between society and an anthill is that we did not all come from the same mommy. 

Leafcutter ants (genera Atta and Acromyrmex) are exactly what their name says: They cut large pieces of leaves off of trees on Latin American rain forests. Most trees in the forests can be cut with their jaws and toxins. The pieces are huge - a human could not lift what this ant is lifting (relatively, of course).

The leaves are not some awesome buffet for the huge queen ant. These pieces of leaves are cut solely to feed a special fungus that the ants grow in their hills. This fungus depends on a secretion from the ants to keep it weed-free. In return, the ants eat some of the fungus. The two are mutually dependent; the ants cannot live without the fungus and the fungus cannot live without the ants. That's right, ants had agriculture before people did.

This should be the other way around. 

The leafcutters are not the only insects capable of farming. Termites and some species of beetle do so as well. Don't you feel lucky that you are a member of of the 100-odd species that utilize agriculture?

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