Leaf cutter ants, found in the tropical forests of South America, are a unique and intriguing type of ant.
Leaf cutter ants, found in the tropical forests of South America, are a unique and intriguing type of ant. These ants are the main cause of leaf destruction in South America and can be seen marching back to their underground nests with segments of leaf clasped in their jaws. At first glance, you might think the leaves might be part of the ant’s diet, but the leaves have a much more interesting fate. These ants farm, growing a special kind of fungus on what becomes of the leaves, and the fungus is what becomes the ant’s food source.
Instead of eating the leaf fragments, the ants utilize the leaves as a form of compost. The chew up the leaves and mix them with a mixture of insect droppings. The droppings are typically from the insects most often found on the forest floor, such as grasshoppers and beetles. The ants cultivate fungus on this mixture. The even weed out and remove any fungi that grow, except for the one they eat. The fungus that they eat cannot be found anywhere but inside the nests of leaf cuter ants.
The fungus these ants work so hard to grow becomes a spongy mass of fine threads of white material. The threads have swollen tips which hold the ant’s food source. The ants have an ideal symbiotic relationship with the fungus. The ants provide the perfect growing conditions, while the fungus provides the ants with food. Neither would survive without the existence of the other.