Leaf-Cutter Ants: Too Good For Sex, Apparently.


The thing I find most charming about insects that exist within a colonial structure is their unfalteringly self-sufficient nature. There are entire colonies of ants consisting of thousands of individuals, who plant and cultivate their own crops, and they arose from a single female, some minute fungal fibres and a tiny plot of dirt. This ability to effectively create an enormous something out of a miniscule nothing, and the fact that they practically invented farming 80 million years ago, are what make the leaf-cutter my favourite type of ant by far, and quite possibly my favourite type of insect.

The inception of a leaf-cutter ant colony begins with a single virginal winged female, who leaves her birth-nest to mate with five or so males from different colonies, enough to produce about 150 million worker daughters. The leaf-cutter is unique because it subsists almost entirely on a particular type of fungus, which itself is reciprocally reliant upon the leaf-cutter ant for its germination, fertilisation and protection from weeds. When the queen is done mating, she’ll land, shed her wings and dig a tiny hole in the earth into which she’ll lay her eggs and plant the fungus fibres she took from her nest. She’ll then use her own faeces to fertilise the fibres. What results is a colony of millions of leaf-cutter ants working together to maintain a thriving garden of codependent fungus plants.

And now you can even leave out that sordid matter of mid-air deflowering, because researchers at the University of Arizona have published a paper in Proceedings B just last week detailing their discovery of a species of leaf-cutter ant that can reproduce asexually. I’m no feminist by any stretch of the imagination, but I still think that’s fairly impressive. The Mycocepurus smithii, an Amazonian leaf-cutter, has evolved in such a way that the female reproductive organs have degenerated to become “ghostlike” and as unnecessary as the males of the species themselves, a single example of which has never actually been found. (And even if one was, it wouldn’t matter because you can’t have sex with a ghost.*) Instead, the tiny lady ants are cloned to be genetically identical to their mother, the queen. Brilliant.

So okay, I know this story was like the opposite of sexy, so go here for TEENAGE SEX! TEENAGE PREGNANCY! and WINGSPANS!!!

* Because they’ve already seen you naked and they’re not interested. But thanks anyway.

– bec

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Filed under Insects, Science

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