“The ants go marching one by one…” goes the famous nursery rhyme describing the brilliant teamwork and management skills possessed by ants. Although small, these bugs are a remarkable example of working together. Each tiny ant labors diligently in constructing its colony. Even a single ant makes a huge and significant difference. The leaf-cutter ants are one such type.
Leafcutter ants, a non-generic name, are any of 47 species of leaf-chewing ants belonging to the two genera Atta and Acromyrmex. Leaf Cutter Ants originate mainly in the USA. They are found in eastern and south central Texas. They also can be found in parts of western Louisiana and are considered an agricultural pest.
Leaf cutter ants have mainly three body parts-the head, thorax, and abdomen, with jointed legs, antennae and an exoskeleton, similar to the hardness of an adult human’s fingernails. Their exterior colors range from orange, brown, red or black typically depending on geographical area. Their sharp mandibles allow the ants to cut pieces of leaves from plants and trees. Leafcutter ants live in huge colonies on the forest floor. They vary in size and appearance depending on their role within the colony. These physical differences are so large that it is hard to believe that ants in the same colony are actually the same species. Some ants are large; some are small; some have wings, and some have big mandibles! Their colonies are very complex, and every ant has a specialized role to play within the colony. Another very interesting fact about the leaf cutter ants is that they live in colonies that can contain over eight million insects! Most of the ants in a colony are workers, but they often have different jobs depending on their body size. The smallest ants, called minims, grow the fungus food and watch over eggs the queen ant has laid. The very largest worker ants, called majors, go out to collect bits of plants and defend the colony from intruders.
Over the years, leaf cutter ants have gained the nickname of “fungus farmers” from the scientists who have closely studied them. This is due to the fact that the ants do not actually eat the leaves they gather into their nest; they ‘farm’ with them and grow mushroom-type fungus to feed on. These ants tuck the bits of leaves into their tunnels and wait for the fungus to grow. Then they harvest and eat it. Leafcutter ants can carry more than 50 times their body weight and cut and process fresh vegetation like leaves, flowers, and grasses to serve as the nutritional substrate for their fungal cultivars.
In some parts of their range, leafcutter ants can be a serious agricultural pest, defoliating crops and damaging roads and farmland with their nest-making activities. For example, some Atta species are capable of defoliating an entire citrus tree in less than 24 hours. One researcher in South America estimated that a large leaf cutting ant colony harvested approximately 13,000 pounds of leaves over a 6-year period. This same colony excavated 802 cubic feet of soil weighing over 44 tons. Considerable damage to a plant can occur in a few hours. Small- to medium-sized trees can be stripped in one night.
During the growing season, ants primarily feed on herbaceous plants and deciduous trees and shrubs. During the dormant season when these plants do not have live foliage, leaf cutter ants damage most species of southern pine trees. The ants prefer loblolly and shortleaf pine trees, though they will also damage slash and longleaf pine trees. The ants are particularly destructive to agricultural operations that grow pine seedlings for the lumber industry.
Let us have a look at the following news article:
Leaf Cutter Ants Chew up Photographer’s Camera Gear
June 8, 2016
“It’s not just the big guys you have to be worried about when setting up a camera trap in the jungle, you should probably look out for ants too” explains Naturalist Phil Torres
Torres is a biologist, conservationist, naturalist, and photographer, and he was in the Amazon rainforest with photographer Jeff Cremer of Rainforest Expeditions when they tried to set up a simple camera trap using a Canon 7D, an off-camera flash, and an IR sensor.
Everything was neatly bagged up to keep it out of the rain, and the gear was tested and in good condition. But when they arrived the next morning, they found all the bags and coverings gone, Jeff’s tripods and cables chewed up, and all of his gear waterlogged beyond saving.
The culprit? The tiny leaf cutter ants!
It turned out Cremer and Torres had set up the trap just a few feet away from the ants’ nest. Overnight, the ants came and cut the bags to pieces, chewed into the gorilla pods and cables, and left whatever gear was still working exposed to the elements so the rain could finish the job. In all, the ants caused about $2,800 worth of damage.
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