This post is dedicated to the large colony of leafcutter ants located directly in front of my house. They help to keep the grounds tidy and aerate the soil, facilitating plant growth.
Occasionally I'll feed them scraps of food just to watch how quickly they can re-arrange the size of their tunnel openings and get the material transported into the bowels of their colony within minutes. I have been closely observing this particular colony now for about 5 years and feel a deep kinship with them. They're way better than owning a dog or an ant farm you could buy in the store.
By the way, did you know that southern Utah is where practically all ant farm ants are collected? Around here that is a point of extreme civic pride.
Leafcutter ants cut leaves from plants and trees and grow fungus on these cut fragments. The ants use this fungus to feed their larvae (the ants themselves mostly imbibe plant sap from the cut leaf fragments). The true leafcutters are restricted to two genera of ants (Atta and Acromyrmex) comprising a total of about 38 species.
Leafcutter ants are limited to the arid, semi-tropical and tropical regions of South, Central, and North America, but they are one of the ecologically-dominant ants everywhere they are found. They are arguably the most well-known of the ants to the local people and foreign tourists in these regions, mainly because of their spectacular habit of carrying colored petals or green leaves in foraging lines that may stretch more than 250 meters from their nest!
These ants have one of the most sophisticated animal societies in the world. This is because of their unusual method of farming (they are the only animal besides humans who grow their own food from living matter), their extremely large colony sizes (up to 8 million individuals per colony in one species, Atta sexdens), and their fantastic caste system (with ants of different sizes and forms specialized for various tasks in the colony).
Did ya'll know that ants equal humans in biomass, and that without them and the termites there would probably be very little plant life due to the clogged and compacted soil profile resulting from the absence of their tunneling? Some entomologists have suggested that humans are a direct byproduct of ants.
A most excellent carving of one of these creatures stalks right above the main entrance of the Bit & Spur in Springdale, Utah and is well worth the effort to go and see. The food and drinks inside the joint ain't so bad either.
Pretty cool planet, ain't it?