Americas: leaf-cutting ant queens and their dangerous lives

This video is called Science Nation – Leaf-cutter Ants.

MATING comes at a price even queens must pay.

A young leaf-cutting ant queen will gamble her own health for the chance to reproduce successfully in the long term.

It’s a high-risk strategy: in only a few hours, the queen must mate and store hundreds of millions of live sperm to use for the rest of her 30-year lifespan – all of which weakens her immune system.

Then she must found her colony, exposing herself to all sorts of pathogens in the soil.

“If females mate too often and/or store too much sperm, they are unable to up-regulate their immune systems,” says Boris Baer at the centre for social evolution at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

When Baer and colleagues stimulated queens’ immune systems and measured the response, they found that it decreased with the amount of sperm the ants stored (Nature, vol 441, p 872).

This is critical, because more than 95 per cent of queens do not survive the initial colony-founding phase, mainly because of parasite attacks.

Still, death is a risk worth taking to ensure successful reproduction in the long term, Baer says.

From issue 2556 of New Scientist magazine, 17 June 2006, page 22.

Leaf-cutting (and other) ants and fungi: here.

Systematic study of fungi since the seventeenth century: here.

What Farming Ants Can Teach Us About Bioenergy: A microbiologist tries to learn bioenergy efficiency from leafcutting ants: here.

Leaf-cutter ants trade jobs when they get old: here.

A symbiosis is a relationship between two organisms that benefits both parties. But in the case of the Texas leaf-cutter ants and the fungus they farm—a relationship traditionally thought to be entirely symbiotic—it seems the ants, in some respects, get the short end of the stick: here.

Young Queens of Leafcutter Ants Change Roles If They Cannot Reproduce: here.

Nature and nurture help ant societies run smoothly: here.

Millions of years before humans discovered agriculture, ants were farming fungus beneath the surface of the Earth. By tracing their evolutionary history, scientists have learned about a key transition in their agricultural evolution. This transition allowed the ants to achieve higher levels of complexity in farming, rivaling the agricultural practices of humans. Scientists report that this transition likely occurred when farming ants began living in dry climates: here.

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