A Bizarre and Mighty Civilization

And it’s made by leafcutter ants. /

Go to the ant, you sluggard;
consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander,
no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer
and gathers its food at harvest.
(Prov. 6:6–8)

If a congress of naturalists were to gather to choose the seven wonders of the animal world, they would be compelled to include the bizarre and mighty civilizations of the attine leafcutters.

Throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of the New World, these insects dominate forests, grasslands, and pastures. Anywhere you travel on the mainlands of Central and South America, from the wild interior to plazas and vacant lots in the hearts of cities, you will soon encounter leafcutters.

What will catch your attention at first are massive lines of relatively large reddish brown worker ants. They run in columns as wide as ten ants abreast, and as tight as soldiers double-timing in a parade. They travel on miniature highways the width of a human hand, which they keep bare of vegetation and debris. Some are outward bound; a roughly equal number are homeward bound. Most among the latter carry a freshly cut section of a leaf or flower petal, which they grip in their mandibles and direct back over their bodies like umbrellas. These are the “parasol ants,” local people in Texas and Louisiana will tell you.

Look closely at the burdened ants, and you are likely to see pygmy replicas riding as hitchhikers on the transported leaf fragments. Do these miniature ants act like mahouts to guide their big nestmates home? No, their role is even stranger: they serve as living flywhisks. Ant columns attract parasitic flies that are deadly. They descend like dive-bombers and, if unimpeded, lay eggs upon or near the ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 20 / April 16, 2015
  1. Editors’ Note

    Issue 20: Language, Ants, and Julian of Norwich

  2. O for 7,000+ Tongues to Meep

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word birthed many more. /

  3. Morning Songs in the Night

    God sings the same chorus over and over—even during the blackest of plagues. /

  4. Naming the Animals

    ‘Until he named the cow cow, no one slept standing up’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Links to amazing stuff /

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