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Leafcutter Ants Work Together, Processing Leaves For Nutrients Underground [VIDEO]

Feb 03, 2016 01:59 PM EST
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University of Oregon (UO) scientists have captured never-before-seen views of how leafcutter ants build up their food supply inside their nests. Since these ants are considered major agricultural pests throughout much of the southern U.S. and South America, researcher Robert Schofield believes his group's findings may help farmers find ways to reduce damages the ants cause. 

Leafcutter ants build massive underground nests in which they create complex societies. In order to get work done and food on the table, these ants rely on a division of labor. In the latest study, researchers focused on the ants' ability to grasp leaves and deliver them to their nests, to be used to grow fungus that nourishes their colony, according to a news release

The researchers' video footage documented how leafcutters carefully select leaf pieces that are small and easy enough for them to transport. Researchers also witnessed how the ants process the leaves by holding, licking, scraping, cutting and puncturing them. Interestingly, 90 percent of this work takes place in their nests. (Scroll to read more...)

"We show that the many-jointed leg tips, or tarsi, of ants can be prehensile, like many-jointed human fingers, grasping and manipulating work pieces with precision," Schofield, a research professor in the UO Department of Physics, explained in the university's release. "The ants are remarkably handy, often using three legs as a tripod to stand on and the other three legs to handle leaf pieces as they cut, scrape, lick, puncture and chemically treat them. When the processing is complete, the ants rock the leaf fragments into the comb, much like stonemasons building a wall."

In terms of energy expenditure, researchers found task-sharing and division of labor are important to the overall health and survival of the ants, and they believe their study, recently published in the journal Royal Society Open Sciencemay be useful in creating tiny bio-inspired machines and tools.

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