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Discovery Magazine 5/1/2006

A City of Fungus Farmers

Have you ever stopped to think about all the things that it takes for a city to operate? For instance, suppose that in your town or city there was no place to take your garbage. Soon, the garbage would pile up in the rooms of your house and in all the houses on your street. The houses and streets would be so full of garbage that you would not be able to live there anymore. And, think about all the things that are necessary to get enough food to the people in a town or city. What if no farmers grew food, or no truck drivers delivered food to grocery stores, or no grocery stores even existed? You can see that there are many people needed to operate a city.

Did you know that there is a kind of ant that builds an amazing “city” of its own? It is called the leaf cutter ant. When a leaf cutter ant colony is started, a queen flies to a place to build a nest. She soon loses her wings and becomes a mother by laying thousands of eggs that she takes care of. When they hatch, they become the nurses for the new eggs that the queen lays. In fact, the queen stops doing everything but laying eggs. Her job gets pretty tough because sometimes she can lay up to 30,000 eggs in one day.

As thousands of ants start to hatch, they take on many different jobs. Some ants become the nurses that take care of the eggs. Other leaf cutter ants become soldier ants that protect the nest from predators. Some of the ants become foragers that go outside the nest and bring back leaves and plants. And another group of ants tend to the “garden.”

 That’s right. The leaf cutter ants have a garden where they grow their own food. Here is how it works. Leaf cutter ants build a huge nest underground. This nest can be over ten feet deep and over 40 feet wide, with various smaller nests attached to it. In fact, some leaf cutter nests can take up over 3,000 square feet. That is twice as large as the average American house! Inside the nest, a colony of several million ants can live. These millions of ants build hundreds of rooms. The rooms have many different purposes. Some of the rooms are for hatching new baby ants. Other rooms are for removing and storing waste. In fact, some ants are the “garbage men” that stay in the waste rooms and turn the “garbage” over and over so it will rot away more quickly. But some of the most important rooms are the rooms where the ants keep their gardens.

To build their gardens, the leaf cutter ants search the countryside for leaves, flower petals, and plants. When they find the leaves they want, they leave a special scent, called a pheromone, which marks the trail. Then they use their amazingly sharp jaws that can vibrate as fast as 1,000 times per second, to cut the leaves into oval shapes. The special forager ants carry the leaves back to the nest. This is not as easy as it sounds. These little worker ants can carry weights that are over 20 times as heavy as they are. That would be like a 100 pound sixth-grader lifting a 2,000 pound young elephant over his head. They are really strong.

When the ants get the leaves back to the nests, the leaves are licked clean of any bacteria that may be harmful, chewed up, and then deposited in a garden room. In this room, a special fungus is placed on the leaves. This special fungus is used to feed the ant colony. The gardener ants tend the fungus and make sure it is growing properly, and they protect it from harmful bacteria that could kill it. This relationship between the fungus and the ant is called a symbiotic relationship, because both the ant and the fungus benefit from it.

A single colony of leaf cutter ants can thrive for 15 years, as long as the queen lives. The interesting and exciting thing about leaf cutter ants is that they disprove evolution in many ways. First, without all the different kinds of ants to do the different jobs, the colony would not survive. But how would colonies have lived while they were trying to evolve ants like the soldier ants or the nurse ants? Second, the fungus does not seem to grow anywhere but in a leaf cutter colony, and it needs the ants to live just like the ants need it to live. So, if the ants evolved first, how would they have lived until the fungus evolved? Or if the fungus evolved first, how would it have lived without the ants? In truth, the ants and the fungus were specifically designed by God to live together and supply each other’s need. What an amazing insect. And what an amazing Creator! 



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