Deploying multiple video cameras in a University of Oregon lab, scientists have documented never-before-seen views of leafcutter ants at work processing leaves and growing their food supply in their nests. In a open-access article published online on January 27, 2016 in Royal Society Open Science, Robert Schofield, Ph.D., and colleagues detail the ants' prehensile skills and shed new insights on the various behaviors associated with gathering leaves, delivering the leaves to their nests, and processing the leaves to grow the fungus that nourishes the leafcutter ant colony. The article is titled “Leaf Processing Behaviour in Atta Leafcutter Ants: 90% of Leaf Cutting Takes Place Inside the Nest, and Ants Select Pieces That Require Less Cutting.” Leafcutter ants are agricultural pests that range from the southern United States through much of South America. Their complex societies rely on a division of labor inside and outside their often-massive underground nests. Studying the ants, Dr. Schofield said, helps find ways to reduce the damages they and their nest cause and to gather nature-based insights that may prove helpful to efforts to manufacture tiny machines and tools. In the study, Dr. Schofield's six-member team documented how leafcutters hold, lick, scrape, cut, and puncture the leaves they use. The study found that the ants are selective, choosing leaf pieces that are small and easy for them to transport, and that 90 percent of the processing work takes place in their nests. The study links to a six-minute summary video that puts the findings together and also to shorter videos that focus on individual aspects of the ants' work. The videos emerged from more than 70 hours of observations in a leafcutter colony established in Dr. Schofield's lab.
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