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Costa Rica Leaf Cutter AntsA great social organization hidden in the underground leaf cutter ant hill
Among the thousands of species of insects of tropical rainforest, and the more than 66,000 species in Costa Rica, the most intriguing and fascinating are the leaf cutters, which have a true social organization commanded by the ant queen. Leaf cutter ants farm a special kind of fungus underground using mulch chewed from leaves bits stripped from specific plants & trees. This have evolved as an advanced agricultural system based on the ant-fungus mutualism: They don't feed on leaves, but on certain parts of that specialized fungus that grows only in the underground chambers of the ant burrow.
(En Español: Hormigas Cortadoras)
The Queen Ant and its Leaf Cutter Ants Colony
Summary of Leaf Cutter Ant Facts
Leaf cutter ants can be seen in large trails, as if parading, through the Costa Rica tropical rainforest ground on work by carrying cargo (the cut leaves bits by the workers ants) to their nests, where it will be chewed by other worker ants, mixed with their own saliva and feces, and mulched into compost or fertilizer to farm a specialized fungus. The fungus grows developing a spongy contexture and white coloration (similar to bread) of 15-30 cm, whose hyphal swellings (called "gongylidia") have inflated tips on which ants feed (because of their richness in lipids and carbohydrates derived from the leaves). The ants actively cultivate their fungus, feeding it with freshly-cut plant material, saliva and feces; as well as protecting and maintaining it free from certain pests and molds capable of damage it.
This ant activity is much like humans farm crops as a food source, and the leaf cutter ants and fungi are dependent on each other for survival, making this fact a good example of mutualistic symbiosis (mutual benefit interdependence).
Notes & References:
1 - Mueller, U. G., Rehner, S. A. & Schultz, T. R. (1998). The Evolution of Agriculture in Ants. Science, 281(5385):2034-2038.
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