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Would you think of a farmer if you heard Leafcutter Ant?
No? Well, that’s exactly what they are! Leafcutter Ants are nature's very own farmers and have been cultivating their food for millions of years! In fact the first leafcutter ants roamed the planet more than 50 million years ago!
Back in April, Tayto Parks zookeepers were anxiously awaiting the arrival of our new colony of ants. Once they were in their exhibit It took three days to for the new nest to be established with a single Queen at the core. A Queen needs her helpers and they came in their thousands, all having different roles to play known as castes. Some examples of castes are the workers, soldiers and drones - each playing an important part in the colony to ensure its growth and survival.
Leafcutter ants live up to their name and spend their time in search of suitable vegetation. Once they find a suitable plant, they use their powerful jaws, or mandibles, to cut the leaf which they then bring back to the nest. Once it's back at the nest, ants cultivate the leaves producing a fungus garden. It’s this fungus that the ants eat and survive on – farming at its finest!
Since they arrived in Tayto Park, zookeepers have noticed that this tiny species is quite picky when it comes to what leaves they prefer!! Meaning the keepers have had to brush up on their plant identification skills. Luckily Tayto Parks talented horticulturalists have been on hand to help!! Here are just some of the favourites horse chestnut, copper beech, rose petals, oak, honeysuckle, and ash. Unfortunately, others like weeping willow, haven’t gone down too well!!
Providing their favourite plants isn’t the only job keepers have when looking after a colony of ants. Ensuring a stable nest temperature of about 25 ͦC along with high humidity are another two vital factors needed for a colony to survive. People often ask how many ants are in the colony, but at this stage, it’s hard to tell. However, taking into account the size of the nest and some expert knowledge it is expected that the colony should grow to 500,000 ants by summer 2018!
In the wild, leafcutter ants are seen by local farmers as pests and are the primary species responsible for vegetation loss in the tropics. Although they have no conservation status, this unassuming invertebrate is a major player in maintaining a healthy, balanced ecosystem in their native Central and South America. Here in Tayto Park, however – keepers are still busy learning all about ant antics, make sure you come and see their exhibit during your next visit!