On a recent trip to Amazon rainforest in the Madre de Dios province, we came across some creatures that put the hardest working people to shame. From dawn to dusk, we noticed thumbnail-sized green leaves shimmering, jiggling on the ground below, being marched in a never-ending procession to an unknown destination. The force behind this movement was the army of leafcutter ants that we never saw ‘not working’. For the two of us on vacation, spending most of our time with a beer buzz gently rocking in our hammocks, the sight of leafcutter ants going about their duties was more than a little impressive.
Our guide at Inkaterra, Javier, first pointed them out to us on a short walk through the forest next to our cabaña. There were ants carrying a leafy load many times their own body weight, and occasionally, other ants getting a ride over those leaves. These ‘free-riding’ ants were quality checkers, making sure that the right leaves were being transported for their purpose.
Since that week in the forest, I’ve read a little more about these amazing creatures, and learned that they form some of the most complex societies in the universe, second only to humans. Different ants in a colony perform specialized roles – the queen for reproduction, strong worker ants to forage for leaves, others for ‘agriculture’ – feeding the leaves to the fungus that sustains the colonies, and still others that separate and discard trash.
My pictures don’t do justice to these supremely evolved creatures, mostly because they would not stay still for even a fraction of a second, for me to aim and focus. Once we had spotted a few favorite paths of these ants, we did our best to give them a wide berth and not interrupt their industry.
There are people who have devoted their life, or at least a number of years, to the study of small and microscopic organisms. All I can do is point you to some interesting reading material on this subject:
In spite of all my regard for leafcutter ants and all their hardworking cousins, I did manage to inadvertently kick an ant colony, sending hordes of them up my legs for a painful and embarrassing episode of ‘ants in my pants’. That answered my question in the title – they do, in self-defense, when they are threatened.