When you're an ant but also a fungus tycoon - Charles Wallace
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AntWiki is a wiki project all about ants, including pages on Atta texana, the Texas leafcutting ant, one of the northernmost leafcutter ants, which mostly occur in central and South America. Because of their leaf-collecting, they can be a major pest (from a human perspective, anyway).
What sets leafcutters apart from other ants is their long cultivation of fungus gardens, which are genetically distinct from their wild relatives, and are as reliant on their ants as their ants are on them. The article “How Ants Became the World’s Best Fungus Farmers,” from Smithsonian Magazine, discusses how and why this relationship evolved.
Many different kinds of insects like to make their homes in ant nests, including members of the cockroach genus Attaphila (literally Atta-lover, although they also live in some Acromyrmex nests). These little myrmecophiles are small and wingless, and sometimes use departing alates to move to different colonies, as detailed in this article from the University of Texas.
To see more of how exactly leafcutter foragers collect pieces of leaves, watch this video from the Dr. Adrian Smith at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
Dr. Alex Wild, curator of entomology at the University of Texas-Austin and macro photographer, has some fantastic pictures of Atta texana, including some hitchhiking Attaphila.
In nature, when somebody has a good thing going, inevitably somebody else will want to take advantage of it – and in this case, members of the parasitic fungus genus Escovopsis would take advantage of the leafcutters’ well-tended gardens, as discussed in the article “Leafcutter ants are in a chemical arms race against a behaviour-changing fungus” by Dr. Sarah Worsley.
Want to learn more about insects? Check out these TED-Ed videos:
Inside the ant colony - Deborah M. Gordon
The world’s most painful insect sting - Justin Schmidt
Why the insect brain is so incredible - Anna Stöckl
A simple way to tell insects apart - Anika Hazra
Why are there so many insects? - Murry Gans
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