Leafcutter ants cut and chomp away at Notebaert Nature Museum

December 27, 2012 (CHICAGO)

Thousands of leaf cutter ants are farming away at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago's Lincoln Park.

It might be the beginning of winter outside but inside the museum, it's the middle of summer with an exhibit called "Backyard Monsters".

Huge versions of those tiny creatures that live in our yards are featured. But not everything here is supersized-not the leafcutter ants.

The leafcutter ants are alive and well, chomping and carrying into their ant underworld.

"They cut the leaf and they carry it in and they mash it up and they grow fungus on top of it," the invertebrate specialist at the museum Karen Wilson said. "That's what they eat and that's what they feed their babies mostly."

Their jaws vibrate at about a thousand times per second to harvest the crop. The ants carry up to fifty times their own weight transporting the leaves into their tunnels. That's like a 200 pound man carrying ten thousand pounds.

"They're farmers. They actually provide the fertilizer. They provide the pest control, their own antibiotics. Everything," Wilson said.

The ant queen hides away in her fungus castle and in her 10 to 15 years, she will produce over 150 million offspring. It's the female ants that do all the work from harvesting to baby raising. The men only show up for mating and then they die.

The "Backyard Monsters" exhibit is open through January but the ants are now permanent residents.

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