The Living Wonder of Leafcutter Ants, in Mesmerizing Stop Motion
By Maria Popova
Alongside humans, leafcutter ants form some of nature’s vastest, most sophisticated societies — a single mature colony can contain as many ants as there are people on Earth, living with a great deal more social harmony and consonance of purpose than we do.
They are also one of our planet’s most dazzling testaments to evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis’s insistence that “we abide in a symbiotic world”: For 50 million years, leafcutter ants have been practicing a form of agriculture in their mutualist relationship with a fungus they cultivate as a food source, growing it in fungus gardens and feeding it plant matter, which the fungus converts into nutrients the ants can feed on in turn.
In fact, leafcutter ants evolved their sharp mandibles and deft prehensile legs precisely in order to cut and manipulate leaf fragments, which they then carry to their fungal garden. A single ant can carry twenty times its bodyweight — the equivalent of me carrying three grand pianos. In less than a day, a colony can clear entire trees. Emblems of emergence, they do all this as complexity theory incarnate, not a single individual aware of the big-picture goal of the labor.
In her mesmerizing film Antworks, artist Catherine Chalmers captures the strange beauty of this communal consciousness as a leafcutter ant colony dismantles a kaleidoscopic plant in the jungles of Costa Rica, then carries the fragments — “tiny Abstract Expressionist paintings” she calls them — to their secret garden.
Published September 16, 2023