During the filming of an episode of Breaking Trail, the adventurer Coyote Peterson went into the jungles of Costa Rica to test the leafcutter ant’s bite. Although their bite seems extremely painful, these ants’ way of life is still quite fascinating.
Leafcutter ants are among the strongest animals in the world. They have such powerful mandibles that they can easily pierce human skin, as Coyote Peterson quickly learned. But what makes these ants from Central and South America so exceptional is their way of life.
In fact, the leafcutter ants’ fame rests on the fact that they are the only ants who practice agriculture. They cultivate a mushroom in their anthill to meet their needs, which means we should probably be calling them mushroom ants.
The second most complex society after our own
Contrary to what one might think, these ants are unable to digest the cellulose contained in leaves, but their mushroom can. Using their mandibles like scissors, they cut the leaves into tiny fragments (hence their name). The compacted plants are then brought to the fungus which grows out of it, in the form of white foam. By digesting the leaves, the fungus degrades the cellulose. The substrate that it then produces feeds the entire anthill.
This mastery of mushroom cultivation has allowed leafcutter ants to flourish, to the point that they are one of the most complex societies in the animal kingdom. Organised in a quasi-industrial way, they can strip an entire tree of these leaves in 1 hour.
Each ant is specialised, there are big workers who take care of the cutting high up and the transport of the larger pieces, tiny workers in charge of the cutting into fragments and compaction, and huge soldiers measuring half an inch long who protect them. It is these soldiers’ mandibles that had a go at Coyote Peterson’s finger…