The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Living Wonder of Leafcutter Ants, in Mesmerizing Stop Motion

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.

Complement with the poetic science of the ghost pipe — another of Earth’s most enchanting mutualisms — then dive into the wonders of other non-human minds with The Soul of an Octopus.

HT Kottke

Published September 16, 2023




Filed Under

View Full Site

The Marginalian participates in the and affiliate programs, designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to books. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book from a link here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy. (TLDR: You're safe — there are no nefarious "third parties" lurking on my watch or shedding crumbs of the "cookies" the rest of the internet uses.)