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Leaf cutter ant. Photo: <a href="">Jim Webber</a>, CC some rights reserved
Leaf cutter ant. Photo: Jim Webber, CC some rights reserved

Natural Selections: Leaf Cutter Ants

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Why do Leaf Cutter Ants cut leaves? Nesting material, food? As Martha Foley and Curt Stager explain, these ants are composting. What they actually eat grows on the rotting leaves.

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Synopsis of this Natural Selections conversation:

Early European naturalists who went down to South America wrote about ants that used leaves as construction materials and covered their nesting hole during the rainy season. Later, however, near the end of the 1800s, closer observations showed that the ants were not using leaves as rain shields. Instead, they took the leaves to the nest, put them in a chamber, and let them rot. Then the ants would eat from the fungal "garden" that grew on this compost, not the leaves themselves.

When a new colony of leaf cutter ants forms, the new queen often provides the proper fungus, taking a starter piece from her mother’s colony and carrying it in her mouth back to her own colony. However, “genetic studies are now showing that it is not uncommon to start one fresh, bringing in fungus from somewhere outside,” says Stager. Occasionally, different colonies or even different species of leaf cutter ants will share their fungus.

This fungus has co-evolved with the ants over time, but there are other species of fungi that are harmful to the ants. When a parasitic fungus is brought into the nest, it can take over. Dr. Stager compares the takeover to an infestation of weeds. To defend against these fungi, one species of leaf cutter ants grows bacteria on the outside of its body. The bacteria make antibiotics that can kill off the "weed" fungi.


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