Common Name: Leafcutter Ants
A.K.A.: Genera Atta and Acromyrmex of Tribe Attini
- Fungi grown by leafcutter ants come from the family Agaricaceae
- Ant species can maintain their association with a specific fungal cultivar for millennia
- Neither the ants nor the fungal cultivars can survive outside of the symbiosis
- Some ant species are capable of completely defoliating a small tree in under a day
Found: Humid forests of Central and South America
It Does What?!
Last week, we looked at leafcutter colonies, their various castes, and the impressively long lives of ant sperm. But obviously, leafcutter ants are known principally for one thing- cutting leaves. This they do on a grand scale, forming lines of thousands upon thousands of ants, dutifully toting chucks of foliage back to their colony. Why? To fertilize their fungus, of course! Much as we like to think of agriculture as one of the crowning achievements of mankind, the fact is, ants came up with it much earlier than we did. About 50 million years earlier, actually. (But they haven’t figured out how to deep-fry anything yet, so there’s that, I guess.)
When a young queen leaves her original colony to found a new one, she carries in her mouth a small piece of fungus to use as a starter culture (think yogurt or sourdough bread) for the colony’s gardens. Initially, she will care for this culture alone, but once the first generation of workers is born, they will take over the task from that point on. Since fungi don’t photosynthesize, they’re perfectly happy in a pitch-black underground garden, but they still need nutrients with which to grow, and dead vegetation is their food of choice. As the larger worker castes return with leaf (and flower) fragments up to three times their own mass, the minima gardeners clean away any outside fungal spores and chew the vegetation into smaller and smaller pieces. They then mix the shredded leaves with fungus and add the mixture to the garden. And, just for an extra fertiliser kick, they mix in their own faeces. Waste not, want not, right?
With all the workers coming and going, and so much foreign vegetation entering the colony, infections of the garden by competing fungal spores are inevitable, despite the ants’ best efforts. One such invader is the fungus Escovopsis, a parasite of other fungi, which can decimate a colony’s food supply and, in the case of young and vulnerable colonies, sometimes cause them to fail entirely.
But the ants have a secret weapon: bacteria. These adaptive little farmers actually carry around a ready supply of antimicrobial compounds right on their bodies. The bacterium in question, Pseudonocardia, grows directly on the ants’ exoskeletons and, researchers suspect, is nourished by a substance excreted through the ant’s glands. In return, Pseudonocardia produces a compound that the farmers can spread on invading fungus, killing it without damaging their food source. Symbioses within symbioses… and these are just the ones we know about.
Meanwhile, outside the colony, another fascinating parasite threatens the workers. Known as phorid flies, or ant-decapitating flies, you can probably guess why these things are a problem. Female phorid flies land on the backs of the larger worker ants as they travel to and from their leaf harvesting sites, laying eggs on the worker’s thorax. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae work their way into the ant’s head and start to eat the tissue surrounding the brain, eventually moving on to the brain itself (causing aimless wandering behaviour similar to that caused by the zombie ant fungus). Finally, the young parasites secrete an enzyme which causes the ant’s head to fall off completely, leaving them a convenient vessel in which to finish their development into adults.
Not to be outsmarted (by anything, apparently), leafcutter ants instituted a policy of defensive piggyback rides. Workers on the foraging path carry tiny minima ants on their backs as they travel. The minimae are too small to be useful hosts for the phorid fly, and so are able to fearlessly attack the flies as they approach, keeping the foragers safe. And not to lose an opportunity for increased efficiency, the little passenger will also begin cleaning the leaf fragment as the larger worker carries it home.
So there you have it. Leafcutter ants form colonies of millions, assign specialised tasks to different classes of citizens, grow their own crops, excel at problem-solving, and know how to use antibiotics. Next to humans, they form the largest and most complex societies on Earth. Forget robots and computers, people- if anything’s going to gain sentience and overthrow humanity, my money’s on the ants.
[Fun Fact: They compost, too. At least one leafcutter species maintains ‘outdoor’ waste heaps of discarded leaves and fungus. Special disposal workers (often old or unhealthy ants) turn the heap regularly to speed up decomposition.]
- Dijkstra & Boomsma (2006) Insectes Sociaux 53: 136-140
- Evison & Hughes (2011) Naturwissenschaften 98: 643-649
- Evison & Ratnieks (2007) Ecological Entomology 32: 451-454
- Holman et al. (2011) Molecular Ecology 20: 5092-5102
- Mueller et al. (2008) Evolution 62(11): 2894-2912