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Currie Lab partakes in #antweek to celebrate the new ant cam!

Monday, February 10, 2020
by Julia Buskirk

The Currie Lab’s Ant Cam was unveiled Wednesday, February 3, 2020! This means that you can now access a live stream of our Leaf Cutter Ant Colony anytime, anywhere. Click here to check it out. 

A Leaf Cutter Ant carrying a leaf to her fungal farm. Photo by Don Parsons. 

To celebrate, the Currie Lab embarked upon #antweek, bringing to you everything we love about ants. Lab members shared their favorite ant facts and photos, and Dr. Cameron Currie gave a presentation on “The Secret Life of Ants” at Wednesday Nite @ the Lab, a weekly program at the Genetics Biotechnology Center that features researchers across campus. Community members had a chance to learn more about the Currie Lab’s Leaf Cutter Ants, and later toured the ant colony themselves at The Microbe Place in the Microbial Sciences Building. 

Dr. Cameron Currie showing the Leaf Cutter Ant Colony to a portion of the individuals who came to Wednesday Nite @ the Lab.

Below we’ve recapped some of our favorite ant facts. Hear from our lab members themselves to see why we decide to spend so much time studying these tiny but mighty creatures!

 

Dr. Cameron Currie digging for a colony of fungus growing Trachymyrmex ants in Georgia.

You may think ants are too small to be consequential in any way. That couldn't be further from the truth! For one thing, they aren't very small at all. Ants actually make up way more of the Amazon’s animal biomass than previously expected, says Dr. Cameron Currie. If you were to combine all the mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians in the amazon, the biomass of ants would still be FOUR TIMES that size–that’s a lot of ant!

Atta Leaf Cutter Ants found in Costa Rica. Photo by Don Parsons.

Among this biomass is incredible diversity. More than 10,000 species of ants have been classified, with more than twice that number estimated to have yet to be discovered by humans and named.


Charlotte Francoeur fearlessly out in the field covered in Leaf Cutter soldier ants, whose job it is to attack anyone threatening their colony!

Charlotte Francoeur, a grad student at the Currie Lab, loves cephalotes and colobopsis ants, otherwise known as Turtle ants. These amazing insects are able to change the shape of their head to become living doors, closing off their colonies from invaders. Some even have moss and lichen growing on their heads to camouflage themselves!

Cephalotes clypeatus Turtle Ants at the nest entrance. Photo by Alex Wild.

The diversity doesn’t stop there. Dr. Margaret Thairu, a postdoc at the Currie Lab, finds the Trap-Jaw Ants fascinating. The mandibles or jaw of the ant can clamp down at 140mph, exerting a force 300 times their own weight! While this can be used to attack prey, the force of their mandibles also flings the ant away which is sometimes used as an escape tactic.


Trap Jaw Ant. Photo by Bernard Dupont licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Kirsten Gotting, a grad student at the Currie lab, is fascinated by ant communication. Nearly 90% of ant communication is in the form of chemical signaling. “I sometimes wonder what it would be like to experience the world if we continually perceived chemistry in the same way,” Kirsten says. “I like to imagine it might be like walking through a rose garden all the time, but there's likely some areas filled with rotten eggs.”

Caitlin Carlson digging for Trachymyrmex ants in Georgia

Nearly all of these species of ants have a Queen Nuptial Flight, which is “nature’s original coming of age drama,” Caitlin Carlson says, a Currie Lab research specialist and the Lab Manager. 

Queen ants preparing for their nuptial flight. Note the size disparity between the queens and the much smaller workers beside them.

The virgin queen of an ant colony must leave the nest and mate with as many males as possible, storing up to 300 million sperm inside of her.  The queen then finds a location for her new colony and begins digging her first fungus chamber. Using the bit of fungus she stored in her mouth that she took from her mother colony, the queen rips off her wings and chews them up to feed the first fungal garden chamber of her new colony.

 Camponotus crispulus queen ant. Photo by Alex Wild

“New queens often start their mating flights during the beginning of the ‘reign’-y season!” says Jenny Bratfurd, a Currie Lab Grad student.


Jenny ready to take on the Costa Rican wilderness to hunt for Leaf Cutter Ants!

Soleil Young, another grad student at the Currie Lab, also loves the story of the queen. After the queen has established her colony, she can live for up to two more decades making her one of the longest living insects.


Atta Queen ant on top of her fungus garden surrounded by her entourage or nurse ants taking care of her 24/7. Photo by Don Parsons.

 

And of course there are the amazing Leaf Cutter Ants, which the Currie Lab specializes in researching and whose colony is now available for you to live stream. As our grad student JoJo Sardina reminds us, ants have been farming for over 50 million YEARS. In comparison, humans have been farming for just a measly 10,000! In the case of Leaf Cutter Ants, these insects take leaves and convert them into compost by chewing them up. They then use this compost to grow fungi on it, which is what the ants actually eat.

 

Leaf Cutter Ants feeding harvested leaves to their fungal chambers. Photo by Don Parsons.

 

You can witness all of this in action now by accessing our livestream! Watch here or access anytime on the Currie Lab’s home page.

And there are many more #antfacts where all this came from. Follow us @uwcurrielab on twitter, instagram, and facebook to hear more of our favorite ant facts. Happy #antweek!

Tags: #leafcutterants #antweek #antfacts #themicrobeplace

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