By Stan Tekiela

There were thousands of them marching in a well organized line. Nearly all were moving in the same direction with the exception of a few here and there that were fighting the current and going the opposite direction. In my headlamp, I could see the trail was stretching for many yards before disappearing into the underground chamber. Nearly each and every one in the moving line was carrying a small section of leaf cut from the upper reaches of a nearby tree. Leaf cutter ants must be one of the most amazing insects in the
jungle.

This week I am writing from the shores of the New River in Belize, Central America. Back home the snow is falling and the temperatures are in the single digits but here the sun is shining the birds are singing and the temperatures are in the low 80s during the day dipping to the chilly 70s at night. The jungle is alive with all manners of life from busy leaf cutter ants to the howler monkeys.

The jungle at night is a magical place. My guide Ruben, who grew up only a few hundred yards from here, is a young man with a vast knowledge of the jungle. He has mastered the jungle plants and knows which plants are used for just about any ailment. In addition, he knows all of the resident birds along with the hundreds of species that migrate here from North America such as the hooded warbler and the gray catbird. He calls these birds “your birds.”

Watching the leaf cutters working in the darkness of the jungle, Ruben explains that there are at least three different types of ants we are looking at. The workers climb the tree and cut a circular section of leaf about the size of a pea. Using the same strong jaws to cut the leaf, the ant carries the small section of leaf over its head back to the underground nest. You might be tempted to think that the sections of leaves are being harvested to eat, but that is not correct. The leaves are stored in underground chambers and are food for a growing fungus that the ants are tending. In turn, the ants are feeding upon the fungus that they are cultivating.

Along the line of returning ants are smaller ants whose sole job is to climb onto the returning ant’s leaf and inspect the section of leaf it is carrying for any insect eggs, fungus or anything else on the leaf surface. These ants are called inspector ants. The ants are meticulous when it comes to what they bring back to the nest to feed their fungus. They don’t want any other fungus or plant growing in their underground chambers so the inspector’s job is very important. Once the section of leaf is looked over and cleaned the inspector ant climbs off and hops up upon another returning ant with a section of leaf.

Nearly twice the size of the worker ants are individual ants with very large jaws. These are called soldier ants. Their job is to patrol the line of returning ants and pick up any dead ants that might be blocking the way. They pick up any dead ants and return them to the nest. Ruben explains that these ants have massive jaws and are used in the jungle to help suture up bad cuts. He picks up a soldier ant and holds it by the body explaining that if you had a bad cut you would hold the ends of the lacerated skin together then put the soldier ant on the cut. The instinct of the ant is to bite pinching together the open wound. Then you would pop off the head of the ant thus locking the jaws together. While explaining this, Ruben put a blade of grass in front of the ant and just as predicted it grabbed the grass with its large pincher jaws. He safely returns the soldier ant to the line of ants and we stand and marvel at the amount of work that is going on for a few moments before heading off into the jungle darkness in search of the next amazing encounter. Until next time

Stan Tekiela is an author, Eden Prairie’s city naturalist and wildlife photographer from Victoria who travels the world to study and photograph wildlife. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.