Tag Archives: leaf cutter ants

14/05/19 We Have Anchored Down in Belize

[6:00am] We were up before the sun, gathered at Rice University’s Valhalla eager to depart. In a series of unfortunate circumstances, we had tardy departures twice (from Rice University to IAH, then from IAH to Belize), but remained on schedule! Finally at around 12:30pm (Belize time—an hour behind Houston’s), we anchored down in Belize.

The remainder of the day was full of travels. We encountered several wildfires—a sure indicator of the dry season! At one particular point, the van was enveloped by a thick cloud of smoke from a roadside wildfire. For lunch, I had soursop juice, stewed pork with rice and beans (not beans and rice—they’re different!) At the next stop, grocery store, I stocked up on plantain chips. (Enjoying the local cuisine!)

After a long trip, we arrived at Crystal Paradise Ecolodge, where there is an abundance of friendly stray dogs and fun. A few classmates and I plus Scott and Amanda walked down to the river to swim and swing for about an hour before dinner until the light started to fade. We encountered no alligators, thankfully, but identified leaf-cutter ants, ants from the genus Ectatomma, and an agouti (no Lepidoptera today!)

Day 12: Social Interactions (5/27/2017)

I wake up in the middle of the night and step outside to something I have never felt before. It is the rainforest night. The air is rich with animal sounds. The sky is pitch black but adorned with countless stars, creating the illusion of a deep indigo-gray. Heartbeats of lighting illuminate the sky, but there is no rain. An unmatched sense of awe comes over me, something I could only feel being alone before nature’s grandeur.

Many hours later, my class and I are in the forest. Tall kapok trees (Ceiba pentandra) along the path form islets of intense shade, and yellow prickly trees (Zanthozylum spp.) sporadically flank the path with yellow-brown adornments. Some of the yellow prickly plants were speckled with tiny crawling ants. These leaf-cutter ants chisel and delivery circular sheets of leafs to their colonies, advanced eusocial communities that mature over time.

We say three ant colonies: one year old, four years old, and ten years old. Similar to an individual organism, the colonies aged, growing larger and more advanced with time. Leaf-cutter ants sustain by cultivating fungus on leaf pieces concealed in underground chambers, and thus colonies must have increasing number of chambers to grow enough food to feed their growing numbers. With time, colonies supported more types of workers and had longer, deeper, and wider tunnels.

A leafcutter ant hard at work

Late in the afternoon, I saw five scarlet macaws (Ara macao) fly across the sky in unison. Although macaws lack a complex social structure like leaf-cutter ants, they still cluster for social interaction and increased protection from predators.

It is interesting how human social interactions relate to those of other organisms. Some people have clearly defined senses of duty, like worker ants chiseling leaves for their colonies. Some exhibit altruism, like a scarlet macaw rearing her chicks. Even if there is no evolutionary relationship between the social interactions of humans and other animals, it is interesting to see the common elements.

However, sometimes it’s preferred to forgo my social role and be alone. The sky is much more powerful that way.

Random Drug Test Day (Day 12)

Today we experienced Scott F. Solomon in his true element: digging up leaf-cutter ant colonies. We went to three different-aged colonies to dig in to and see their tunnels and fungal gardens.  With his tiny shovel and stolen spoon, Dr. Solomon pulled out two of the three colonies’ fungi. It was cool to see how complex the colonies can be and how their complexity increased with age (a single queen can keep her colony growing for 25 years!), but being that close to so many ants was a bit unpleasant.

The other main thing we did today was set up an experiment to test abundances of arthropods and nutrient availability on the forest floor versus in the canopy. This involved each of us filling two viles with our pee and two with water and then tying half to trees and burying half in the ground. Tomorrow we are going to examine the arthropods that fell into the viles.

The day after tomorrow is when we are going to have to go and retrieve our camera traps. I’m excited to see the pictures they’ve taken, but I’m not looking forward to the hiking it will involve. Although the hiking yesterday felt fine, the minimal hiking we did today was pretty painful and quite laborious because I cut my foot on a conch at Glover’s a little over a week ago. As a reminder of our time on Middle Caye, four pieces of shell came out of the cut today. I’m hoping that was the last of it (spoiler: it wasn’t) and that it won’t be as painful in the coming days.

We spent not much time in the woods today, so I did not see any Orthoptera. However, I’m hoping we’ll find lots in the viles. The highlight of today was the Scarlet Macaws we saw. Two of them flew over us and then stopped in a tree nearby. It was a hard to get a picture that did them or their colorful plumage justice, but I don’t think it’s something I will ever forget.

Two Scarlet Macaws spotted in the Chiquibul.

Las Cuevas and pee

DAY 12 – We got a couple of extra hours of sleep last night, which felt really good. I started the day with a little bit of bird watching. We saw a Red-Lored Parrot, with a green body and red markings on its crown. After breakfast, Scott handed each of us two unexplained vials and told us to hydrate. Little did we know, we would be asked to pee in the vials for our next experiment.

In an effort to compare the arthropod diversity and nutrient availability in the canopy of the rainforest and the forest floor, we set out some pitfall traps. Basically, we are trying to see how many arthropods total we count in our canopy traps (both water and urine) and the floor traps (both water and urine) for a comparison of arthropod diversity. We can also infer nutrient availability by the difference between arthropods who go into the urine traps (which have high nutrients, including nitrogen) and the water traps. More arthropods in urine traps indicates lower nutrient availability.

A vial of urine and a vial of water attached to a tree

We had some free time before lunch and presentations before we began our afternoon activity. Scott took us to a young leaf-cutter ant colony (about 1 year old), a slightly older colony (between 3 and 6 years old), and a huge, mature colony (anywhere from 10 to 25 years old). He bravely cut into all three with a shovel and exposed the channels under the soil as well as the fungi that the ants cultivate.

I didn’t see any bees today (except for the nests of stingless bees that are scattered around the research station). I’m going to double down on my efforts to attract a male orchid bee by carrying my fragranced filter paper.

We saw seven Scarlet Macaws total today around the clearing! They are incredibly bright and have kind of a silly squawk. It’s easy to see why they are targets of poaching, given their majestic, colorful plumage.

Tomorrow is our second to last day at Las Cuevas. It’s all happening so fast!

(Nakian) May 24: Departure x Connection x Zoo

Today we left Las Cuevas Research Station to return to San Ignacio and depart to Glover’s Reef tomorrow. The departure was not so smooth as the van came 5 hours later due to miscommunication. The van was hot but spacious so not so much to complain about. As we passed the Tapir Camp and the familiar road we came through I remembered the excitement and concerns on the way to LCRS.
When we arrived at San Ignacio, I connected to the internet with my phone for the first time. It was a race of information and connection that I had forgotten for a whole week. After spending much time replying to worried messages, I found myself submerging into that waves of information and not living in the world I am sitting on. I was returning to myself before the trip I hoped to change.
Finally, we arrived at the Belize Zoo to have a night tour with nocturnal animals. With the humorous guides we saw the big cats of the rainforest that we had hoped to see ourselves in the rainforest. They were beautiful creatures and their story of how they ended up in the zoo saddened me for the ignorance and greed of men.
Also I saw leaf-cutter ants in the zoo. It seems that they are everywhere in Belize.

DSCN2420 DSCN2415

(Nakian) May20: Ants..so much ants

Today was a day ant. I was lucky enough to identify at least four species that I am familiar of. Our assignment to find the defense mechanism of juvenile cecropia tree naturally led me to find Azteca alfari which forms mutualistic symbiosis with the tree. Very fortunately, I was able to find a queen in the top compartment of a small branch. This confirmed that Azteca base center of the colony at the top of the tree. The queen was massive compared to the workers and I could even take pictures of larvae and recently developed nymphs.

DSCN2237(Azteca ant queen)
On the road we found army ants, Eciton burchelii. The swarm had few soldier castes which were at least 3 cm long counting its massive and sickle like mandibles. Hopefully I can find a bivouac of the army ants while I am here. On an acacia tree, I found Pseudomyrmex as expected but also on a different tree, Poniponera had formed a colony inside, which is unusual. Near by the open disturbed area where young cecropia were growing, I found Cephalotes ant with distinctive stout looking head and short abdomen. I was hoping to find one of those ants. Afternoon, I finally got to see the soldier caste of Atta cephalotes. They were indeed huge and the mandibles were sharp enough to pierce through my skin.

DSCN2239(Eciton soldier)

As for the project regarding defense mechanism of juvenile cecropia, our group hypothesized that there would be a physical differences between the leaves of juvenile and mature (or already colonized) cecropia. The leaves of the juveniles were indeed smaller and could withhold more weight than the larger leaves of the mature individuals. this result connected to the further hypothesize that juvenile cecropia have tougher leaves that makes herbivory less cost efficient and thus predators will consume the juveniles in lesser frequency.

DSCN2265(Atta soldier)

Story of an A. cephalotes colony

The sky above the Belizean rainforest before the wet season becomes a royal ballroom of the Atta drones and to-be-queens. A queen successfully mated with multiple drones, filling her abdomen with sperms that will be used for next 20 years of her reign to produce millions of daughters. The queen dug down an open ground and horizontally to start her colony.
From the eggs, minor workers hatched and dug out from the first lair, shedding light for the first time in a while. Their first job is to bring in food for the fungi pallet that the queen brought as her dowry from the mother colony.
It has been 6 years since the queen first dug the colony. The fungi farm is successful and hatchery is busy producing major worker ants. But the colony as met challenges. Last summer some group of human came and ravaged her colony, exposing their pupae and larvae, and precious fungi to who knows what pathogens that will devastate their farm. The queen decided that their production yield, food surplus, and size were ripe to produce the soldiers.
Year 15, the colony has dominated the surrounding area. The soldiers effectively deter the predators and the workers bustle through the highway carrying food for their fungi plantation. The old empress has produced many queens that some of them already established daughter colonies in different regions of the forest. And yet again, the empire met with challenge of human intruders. Many precious soldiers were mailed and workers spent a whole day reconstructing the tunnels and rooms that were destroyed.
Year 21, the queen died. The workers lost their purpose once the last larvae hatched. Day after day old workers died but none hatched to replace them. The great Atta Empire fell as the last worker was eaten by a hungry bird.