Leaf-cutter Ants: Forest Engineers

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As surprising as it might seem to some people, the real owner of the Amazon forest is not the mega fauna. While Jaguars, monkeys, Tapirs, and Caimans have big ecological roles in the environment they live in, no animal plays a more important role in the forest, than the ants.

There are two ‘kinds’ of Ants that shape the forest. Army ants, and Leaf-cutter ants, and today we will be taking a look at the later one. A blog post describing the ecology of the Army ants will arrive in the following months.

When walking around the trails of Tambo Blanquillo Lodge, it is easy to spot rows of ants carrying leaves on their jaws. While they might seem minuscule compared to size of the forest, Leaf-cutter ants are the herbivore that consumes the highest amount of biomass in the forest, a whooping 15-17% of all the vegetation produced.

Something really interesting about these ants is that they do not ‘consume’ the leaves they collect. They feed on a specific type of fungi, which they harvest from the leaves they leave to rot on specially designed cavities in their nests.

If you have ever come across a nest of these ants, you will notice the amount of sunlight that is available. As it is expected, ants tend to collect the leaves that are closer to their nest first, and then move towards further away terrain. So, you can see a gradual deforestation, with the epicenter being the nest. As there is no vegetation covering the nest, sunlight hits the understory, allowing different organism to live there (mostly protozoans – single celled, photosynthetic organisms), when it would otherwise not be possible.

If you wish to come and experience this amazingly expectable, and see many other interesting symbiotic relationships between a wide array of organisms, please do not hesitate to contact us, and we will help you plan the adventure of a life time to Manu National Park, deep inside the Peruvian Amazon.