Look at it! Look at its head! It’s so flat! How on Earth could anything have evolved to look like that, and for what purpose? That’s insane! That’s incredible!
Some of you may not share the same level of excitement that I have about this. In fact, most of you probably don’t have any interest in it at all. I mean come on, it’s just an ant: a tiny, minuscule, and insignificant ant. In our fast-paced, up-to-the-minute, technology dependent and online world why would we pay any attention to an ant, no matter how cool its body parts may be? We have so much more to worry about like doing homework, studying for exams, buying groceries, scrolling through Facebook statuses, and letting Jenny know about that party tonight. But before you go ahead and accomplish those things find some time, take a gander at the photo above, and try to think about why the ant’s head is the way that it is.
That reason is quite essential, both for the individual ant and the survival of its entire species.
This ant is a species of leaf cutter ant that belongs to the genus Cephalotes that are often referred to as “turtle ants.” They are tree dwelling myrmicine ants that live in heavily forested tropic and subtropic regions around the world and are characterized by their thick body armor and an innate devotion to the culturing of fungi from which they attain nutrients. What’s so incredible about this ant species is that it is polymorphic – some of the ants within the colony have enlarged, flat heads that they use to plug up the entrances to their tree-bound colonies, much like a cork is used to plug up a bottle of wine. How unbelievable is that! They’re living corks! The entire colony of about 5 million ants, including a queen ant that lives for up to 15 years and in that time produces all of the offspring within the colony, rely on these few soldier ants for protection from outside invaders. These ants can even glide from tree to tree and colony to colony using their flat heads. They truly are the perfect soldiers, the ultimate protectors of the colony.
So why are these ants important? Sure, they have cool body parts and can plug up holes in trees, but how do their actions and behaviors affect us? They aerate soil by digging tunnels, allowing oxygen and water to reach plant roots. They disperse seeds that often sprout into new plants. They control many populations of insects that we consider to be pests and provide food for many different organisms. With all of this, ants keep the delicate ecosystem, the very ecosystem that provides us with so much, in balance. They maintain the fragile, yet essential connections that keep the world biome from faltering, even though they are just tiny, minuscule insects.