The Ants Go Marching…and Cutting, and Farming
Meandering along the trail in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary & Jaguar Preserve in Belize, I found myself wishing I had an extra pair of eyeballs – one set to watch where I’m going (I’m a terrible klutz), and another pair to take in the scenery. The dense, broadleaf forest offered a feast for the senses. I had come here because I wanted to truly experience the Central American jungle, hoped to see a wildcat, and to indulge my budding interest in birds. Surprisingly, the animals that were to impress me the most were significantly smaller than jaguars or birds.
Ahead of me, a parade of leaves marched out of the forest, across the trail and into the forest on the other side. Odd. Leaves can’t walk. Or can they? I stooped down to take a closer look and encountered one of nature’s marvels – leaf cutter ants.
Organized, industrious, and exemplar of female power (ants are girls!), all ants are amazing. But Leaf Cutters take it to a whole new level. Looking at them trucking along, carrying loads several times their body-size, they struck me as tiny lumberjacks. However, the little lumberjacks advancing along the trail represented only a segment of Leaf Cutter society. As I was later to learn, Leaf Cutters are farmers.
The leaves being carried back to the nest by the marching army of muscle-women were not to be eaten. At least not by the ants. Instead the leaves are used to feed a fungus that serves as the ants food. Leaf cutter ants will go miles out of their way to avoid coming into contact with plants that have natural anti-fungal properties and could therefore pose a risk to the nest.
They say that a leaf cutter society can contain up to eight million individual ants. That’s like an ant version of New York City. Watching a line of them carry their loads across a grassy meadow, it was not hard to imagine that they were so numerous. Their feet had worn a 5 cm-wide trail in the grass. How many bazillion ant feet does it take to carve a trail through tall (tall- from the ants’ perspective) grass? Scientists have found leaf cutter nests that extend to over 30 metes in diameter – true mega-cities.
Although, my stay at the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve did not include a jaguar sighting (though I did see tracks, and some other visitors saw a pair of pumas), I was not disappointed. There were a few other independent travelers and a group of college students from an environmental studies class. The experts and ornithologists that accompanied the college students made their knowledge available to everyone and while I was cooking my evening meals I listened to students present papers topics like “co-evolution”. I saw remarkable birds. And of course, there were those unforgettable little ants.
Check out this radio interview to learn more about these amazing six-legged little creatures.