25/11/2019

Big Little Guys: The Leafcutter Ants

Blink and you'll miss them! Hidden among the leaves of Bug World are some of the strongest and hardest working animals in the zoo: leafcutter ants.

Peer through the glass and you’ll spot a tiny city with thousands of residents, bustling around night and day. But what exactly are they up to?

Keeper Carmen let us get up close and personal – and stopped us from getting bitten! – so we could find out more about these little invertebrates.

Getting Busy

Everybody has their place in the leafcutter ant colony. The Queen rules the roost, and can produce up to 150 million offspring in her lifetime. Among the workers, there are gardeners tending the fungus, soldiers defending the nest, and foragers hustling to find, cut and transport the best leaves.

Small but Mighty

Barely 1cm long and weighing less than 1g, the workers don’t look like they would pack a punch. But each ant can carry a load over 20 times heavier than itself. That’s the equivalent of a human carrying two grizzly bears around! Plus, their powerful jaws can chomp more than just leaves - big predators like armadillos face a fearsome bite.

On the Menu

The leafcutter ants don’t actually eat the leaves they collect – they use it to grow fungus, which is what they feed on. Workers will nibble around the clock to strip their favourite foliage and take it back to the nest – specialities include laurel, privet, flowers and grapes. Although, they can be very fussy! When the snacks on offer don’t fit the bill, they go searching for something else…

The Great Escape

When the keeper’s head is turned, these hard-working little ones make a break for it. Building bridges to here, there and everywhere, they collect bits and bobs along the way including decorative plants and leaf litter.

Grand Designs

These ants build huge nests under soil using the fungi and leaf litter from the ground. These are expansive in the wild, with winding networks of tunnels, little chambers and gardens of fungus. To find the best leaves and get back to the nest, the workers leave pheromone trails – they secrete a smelly chemical which their co-workers can follow!

On your next visit to the Zoo, head over to Bug World and learn all about the invertebrates who call Clifton home.

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