Ancient gardeners: leafcutter ants

Farming isn’t solely a human activity. Other members of the animal kingdom also cultivate ‘crops’. Leafcutter ants from the rainforests of Central and South America use the leaves to feed a fungus in their nests. The growing fungus forms swollen filaments, which the ants cut and feed to their larvae. The fungus also benefits from the relationship, as the ants provide it with food (leaves) and protection. Mutually beneficial relationships like this are termed ‘symbiotic’. The nest itself can contain up to seven million workers and one queen the size of a small harvest mouse.

Worker leafcutter ants (Atta cephalotes) hunt for as many different types of leaves as possible. Some scientists estimate that the ants use around 30 to 50% of the plant species around their nests. The reasons for using such a large variety of plants aren’t entirely clear, but many scientists suspect that it may be to avoid exposure to high levels of certain plant toxins. Rainforest destruction usually leads to the disappearance of many plants and animals, but leafcutter ants are versatile. As forests give way to farmland, the ants have become a serious pest, often destroying entire plantations.

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