Leafcutter ants may be the world’s first farmers. They basically collect leaves, bring them into their nests, and then eat the fungus that grows on the leaves. Now scientists have videotaped never-before-seen views of leafcutter ants at work processing leaves and growing their food supply.
In a paper published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, Robert Schofield and colleagues detail the ants’ prehensile skills and shed new insights on the various behaviors associated with gathering leaves, delivering them to their nests, processing them, and growing the fungus that nourishes them.
The following video shows the different tasks that leafcutter ants do to make a fungus farm from the leaves they carry into their nest.
The complex societies of leafcutter ants rely on a division of labor inside and outside their often-massive underground nests. Schofield’s six-member team documented how leafcutters hold, lick, scrape, cut, and puncture the leaves they use. The study found that the ants are selective, choosing leaf pieces that are small and easy for them to transport, and that 90 percent of the processing work takes place in their nests.
“We show that the many-jointed leg tips, or tarsi, of ants can be prehensile, like many-jointed human fingers, grasping and manipulating work pieces with precision,” said Schofield. “The ants are remarkably handy, often using three legs as a tripod to stand on and the other three legs to handle leaf pieces as they cut, scrape, lick, puncture and chemically treat them. When the processing is complete, the ants rock the leaf fragments into the comb, much like stonemasons building a wall.”
Schofield’s team also analyzed the cutting, carrying, and preparation of the leaves done by the ants to understand their energy expenditure. Much of this analysis involved fieldwork at leafcutter sites in Colombia and Ecuador. The researchers also calculated estimates of leaf-cutting density based on samples of transported leaf cuttings and fungal substrate from field colonies of the leafcutter species Atta cephalotes and Atta colombica.
The task-shared processes, the researchers concluded, suggest that energy conservation and the ants’ division of labor are important to the overall health and survival of the ants.
Additional videos of the ants’ leaf-processing tasks are below:
Abdominal emissions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uff7ngmWEt4
Caching fragments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XW3kAphvZMY
Inserting fragments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2g15h_urZQ
Inoculating fragments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A39B2m25edE
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