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Ant Barbershop

- by Tom Davis
"Bring the #W%#$@#$@ scissors next time!"

On a trip to Costa Rica in July 2002, Tom Davis and his colleagues spent some time in the Guanacaste Conservation Area, where they engaged in a project for the Earthwatch organization. His adventures in the wild make for good reading, so head over to his website if you want to know more.

One interesting sort of ant that we could find all over the place is called a leafcutter ant. They live in huge colonies and gather little pieces of leaves that they use to culture a fungus that's used to feed the ant colony. There are many castes, including a huge soldier ant. A couple of folks got bitten by these soldiers and reported that it was no fun at all.

We did see, although I did not get a photo of it, a column of leafcutters that was carrying only flower parts, so instead of a line of twinkling green bits of leaves, there was a line of purple parts of petals. Some leafcutters apparently carry little bits of twigs and other things.
Ant barber
"If only I were your size we'd see..."

Barbara said her hair was too long and was looking for someone to cut it a bit. We found a trail of leafcutter ants that included a few huge members of the soldier caste, and with great care, Freddy grabbed one and tested its jaw power on various twigs which it was able to sever easily.

We then decided to try it as a barber on Barbara's hair. It certainly clamped down, and was unable to clip the hair, but it was also nearly impossible to remove. On the left is Freddy, cutting off the hair in the ant's jaws, and on the right is a close-up of the soldier with a death grip on the strands. Note the huge head, relative to the body size. The head is full of muscles to close those jaws.

Most times of the year, it's hard to find the soldiers—the columns of ants are usually made up mostly of worker ants hauling leaf fragments back to the nest. But for some reason, this time there were soldier ants all over the place, not just from one nest, but from many of the nests. Perhaps it was the period of time when the virgin queens leave the nest to mate and try to form new colonies.

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