Near the not-so-fluffy carpet of the forest floor, one of the most remarkable farmers in nature is busy at work.
The leaf cutter ant carefully dissects living leaves weighing up to twenty times its body weight. He will join his fellow ants in the long march back to his hidden-hole.
This caravan of leaf cutter ants is truly a spectacle. From the tree’s perspective, though, imagine being you standing still while ants walk by carrying little tips of human fingers and perhaps a snippet of nipple or some foreskin or a piece of upper lip.
From that perspective, it’s expletive horrifying. Of course, the question remains, what the farmer’s mother do they need all those leaves for? Are they assembling a perfect replica of the forest underground? Perhaps the Earth is a giant pinata being stuffed. Or perhaps the ants are just playing a large game of Leafy Leafy, Who’s an expletive.
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It turns out that the leaves are transported back to their little hidden-holes, down into the ground to fungus chambers, which is a good name for a band, by the way.
There, the leaves are processed to become food for fungi of the family Lepiotaceae. They have to be picky, though. Not all fungi can be harvested. Some fungus, like Cordyceps, zombifies its’ host, causing the ant to climb to a high place and grab tight while the fungus sprouts a frickin’ spore from its’ head, which is crazy and a terrible, if slightly cool-looking way to die.
Inside the leaf cutters nest, though, the processing to turn leaves to fungus food is intensive. Worker ants of various sizes cut and puncture and pulverize the leafs, even discharging fecal liquids to help break them down into suitable pieces for their fungus farms. Finally, the resulting fragments are gently locked into a network of fungal filaments.
These fungus gardens then produce nutritious and swollen hyphael tips that grow in bundles called staphylae, which in turn feed the ants and their young. This incredibly complex relationship is the result of nearly 50 million years of co-evolution.
These fungi gave up the ability to create spores and are utterly reliant on the ants to survive. By comparison, 50 million years ago, the major social breakthrough for our ancestors was learning how to throw poop at each other and then laughing about it. It’s still funny.
The leaf cutters are not alone in their pursuit of farming. Other species of ants have developed a mutualistic relationship with aphids, sometimes referred to as ant cows; a name which neither cows or aphids are fond of, but the ants like the name because it’s kind of true.
The ants protect the aphids from predators and parasites and in some cases they will look after the aphids’ eggs, feeding the young aphids and even carry them to the best grazing area on the plant. If you fall asleep on the job like this one, the aphid’s get feisty.
The aphids feed on the sap of the host plant and excrete a lovely sugary nectar referred to as honeydew. Aphids that aren’t ant cows will drop that honeydew away into the ground, which is generally a good rule of thumb for things that come out of your expletive; however, aphids that are tended to by ants will concrete smaller droplets of honeydew and make them available for the ants to eat.
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The ants often milk the aphids by stroking their rears to stimulate the flow of sugar-rich secretions. The ants then suck up that honeydew into their two stomachs; one for themselves and another one to feed their friends through a process called trophallaxis, or reciprocal feeding. In summary, the ants eat aphid poop and puke it into their friends’ mouths. Listen, though, don’t judge.
The variations of mutualism that ants participate in are seemingly endless. A recent discovery, for example, involves a parasitic plant that lives inside of a tree and then creates these little knobby things on the trees’ bark.
Caterpillars eat these knobs, and ants protect the caterpillars, and once in a while the ants play patty-cake on the caterpillar’s tummy, and there’s a secretion, the ants eat it. There’s just a lot of secretion.
Perhaps life is really just about finding a taker for what you are giving.