Why did I read a book about leafcutter ants? It interferes with all of my important projects, the one’s where I – do – well – all of those important things I was thinking of. I don’t remember what those things were. Ants, why not ants? The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct (2011), by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson, that’s the book.
I read the book because: a) it was on the New Books shelf at my library, b) it is short, c) it is full of hideously detailed close-up photographs of leafcutter ants cutting leaves and doing all of the other strange things they do:
Please note how the one mandible becomes a serrated knife while the other guides the path of the cut. Please note how the foreleg lifts the severed edge of the cut. Please note how horribly spiky the ant is.
Millions of leafcutter ants, all over South and Central America, are as I write sawing up vegetation, which millions of other ants carry back to their enormous underground fungus farms, where millions more tiny, specialized ants carefully dismember the plant fragments and feed them to the symbiotic fungus, while other tiny ants harvest the fungus to feed the hive. Other parasites and symbiotes wander through the system. It is all so wonderfully strange.
A team of Brazilians researchers have become leafcutter nest archeologists, specialists in “the megalopolis architecture of Atta colonies” (115). They pump a nest full of liquid cement (for one particular nest, over 6 tons of cement), and then excavate the ant city using standard archeological techniques:
One reason to read a book like this is to witness the creativity of scientists. There are so many kinds of creativity.
The little leafcutter ant book is an expansion of a chapter of another recent Hölldobler and Wilson book, The Superorganism, which is presumably packed with forbidden knowledge beyond the ken of mortal man. The leafcutter ants, though, are “the greatest superorganisms on Earth discovered to the present time” (127). That last qualifier scares me.
This schematic of a leafcutter ant brain is just a bonus illustration for 50 Watts, who likes this kind of thing, as do I:
If you have a niece or weird uncle who is into zombies, get them this book for Christmas. They will be furious at first, but they’ll enjoy it and will thank you, perhaps many years later.