Here you are, on a vacation to Guatemala. You’re lying on a hammock near the Central American rainforest…when you find ants all over you, coming from a nearby tree. You fall off your hammock, and that’s when you notice the ants are carrying leaves… You think aloud. “They are probably going to eat that stuff!”
You may have a similar experience at several locations in Central and South America, but many species live as far north as Oklahoma. But this insect, known as the leafcutting ant, does not eat leaves. It carries them to its nest and feeds it to a special type of fungus that these ants grow.
The species of this harvest fungus depends on the species of the ant. The fungus “garden” is located deep underground within the ant colony. The average ant nest contains several of these gardens, each with an average life span of about 3-5 weeks.
As leaves reach the nest, they are cut up into a gooey mulch and licked clean of all other fungus spores that may interfere with the growth of the harvest fungus. Licking the leaves also helps get rid of natural antibiotics. Next, in a clean terrace within the nest, the plant matter is laid out and covered with fecal droppings. The fecal matter fertilizes and breaks down the proteins that the fungus cannot. Finally, a piece of fungal hyphae (the growing, nutrient-using part of the fungus) is placed on top of the plant matter. As it grows, a part called the gongylidia (“gong-ee-lid-ee-ah”) of the fungus is fed to the members of the colony.