Tropical Field Ecology in Costarica

La Selva (Mon., 3/15/09) – The Hardest Workers at La Selva
by -- March 16th, 2009

You see these guys tramping through the forest and grounds day and night, hard at work and never seeming to rest. They haul objects much larger than themselves through mud, over tree roots and down treacherous slopes without even breaking a sweat. They are the leafcutter ants.

A lot of people have already blogged about some of the more “interesting” wildlife we’ve seen in both Palo Verde and La Selva, but it’s the smaller, more abundant creatures that keep catching my eye.  Walking through the dry forest or the wet forest, or even across parking lots, you can usually count on seeing a winding trail of leaf-wielding ants, moving back and forth relentlessly like cars on a two-lane highway.

Leaf Cutter Ant

A leafcutter ant cuts a leaf to bring to its nest.

As the name suggests, these ants spend their lives cutting small chunks out of leaves, hoisting them above their heads and bringing them back to their nests.

Leaf Cutter Ant 2

The leafcutter finishes cutting the leaf.

But, these leaves aren’t for eating.  Instead, the ants use them to cultivate a type of fungus which they then eat, ultimately acting as farmers and growing their own food.
Leaf Cutter Ant 3

The ant begins its long journey back to the nest.

Unlike the smaller fire ants and the larger and far scarier bullet ants, these insects don’t seem too interested in attacking nosy humans, and I haven’t yet heard of somebody being bitten by one (although who knows, it may happen!)  I’ve seen many a leafcutter stepped on, because careless feet happened to stumble on their trails.  However, as dedicated as they are, the remaining ants just pick up their leaves, move around the obstructions, and just keep on trekking.

Leaf Cutter Ants

A stream of leafcutter ants make their way back to the nest.


  1. Amelia Kissick
    Mar 24, 2009

    This is a great! One can see leaf cutter “highways” everywhere in these biological stations. They are amazing! Sometimes if you look very close at a leaf, you’ll see a mini-leafcutter ant ‘surfin’ along on a leaf that is being carried back to the nest. Apparently these are little helper ants that do quality control and pest elimination. Apparently it’s their job to ensure the leaf is worth carrying back to the nest and also to eat up any bothersome mites or other pests that might annoy the carrier.

  2. Kevin Megan
    Sep 9, 2010

    I agree with you Amelia, although, I haven’t seen it personally but I saw it at NGC channel it’s so awesome! they work in team, I guess it would be nice if they will be great to video tape them and present them to team building activities.

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