Old World Underground

Do you know the leaf cutter ant?

Costa Rica, spring 2005

Atta cephalotes – Costa Rica, spring 2005

I really hope you do. They’re a group of ants found predominantly in the tropics that are best known for their agricultural practices. Those little leaves they’re cutting are to farm a special fungus that feeds them. They feed the fungus, and the fungus in turn feeds them. Pretty brilliant!

What’s more is their underground colonies are comprised of anywhere from 5-20 million individuals, all compartmentalizing tasks to live a nice, communal life. But there’s only one suprema per colony – the queen – just like the colonies of bees. Her main job is to lay eggs. Then lay eggs. Then lay some more eggs. Then wash, rinse, repeat.

I want you to think about the life of most insects compared to the life of a mammal like us. We tend to have few young with relatively long lives. In comparison, most insects have lots of young with relatively short lives. Of course there are exceptions to the rule (I’m looking at you cicadas!), but generally, we imagine insects we encounter as having teensy weensy lifespans. But not that of a leaf cutter ant queen. These queens can live upwards of 15 years – the same as a house cat!

Even more intriguing is something I learned about them yesterday. Lots of bees and ants mate relatively early on in their lives. Being the fascinating creatures that they are, the queens store sperm from matings in a specialized area of their reproductive tract called the spermatheca.

Now, let’s put these two facts together. Leaf cutter ant queens live 15 years, AND they store sperm throughout their lives. This essentially means the sperm of leaf cutter ant males are capable of surviving for a decade within the female!

Granted, they mostly remain inactive until a series of unknown events gets their juices flowing (so to speak) and prepares them to be used up to make some daughters. But still – decade old sperm that doesn’t involve cryogenics?!

How spectacularly innovate nature is. Just imagine the wonder that still awaits us as we begin to unravel the things we do not yet know.


1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Because of the Bees | Animal Behavior Research Oddities

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