(clip from Ants- Nature’s Secret Power)
Leafcutters are the ant stars of many nature documentaries. Their most spectacular film appearances, including the nest excavation above, and the relocation of a full colony to a lab for the BBC’s upcoming Planet Ant, involve the destruction and removal of an established colony. Since leafcutters are such dominant players in tropical ecosystems, this practice of destructive filming raises the question of whether we ought be concerned about ant conservation when filming.
The short answer is: No.
Most Atta leafcutter species are not only not endangered, they may even be more numerous now than before our species intruded on their territory.
Leafcutters, you see, are beneficiaries of human activity. They are a buggy, neotropical analog of North America’s ubiquitous whitetail deer, a species that thrives along forest edges, farm fields, and other places where weedy, disturbance-associated vegetative regrowth provides an abundance of their favorite foods. Cleared soil may also help leafcutters start new colonies. When humans make field from a forest, or build a road, they also make leafcutter habitat. The leafcutters thrive.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Have a look at these aerial images from rural Paraguay:
Atta vollenweideri nests- the white dots- are denser in old farm fields than in the undisturbed adjacent scrub. We humans have been good to leafcutters. They, in turn, have repaid us by becoming the most economically damaging pest insect in the region.
So enjoy your leafcutter ant documentaries, and don’t worry about the fate of the ants. Our environment is faced with far more serious troubles.
Wirth et al (2007) Increasing densities of leaf-cutting ants (Atta spp.) with proximity to the edge in a Brazilian Atlantic forest. Journal of Tropical Ecology 23: 501-505. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0266467407004221
Vasconcelos et al (2006) Roads Alter the Colonization Dynamics of a Keystone Herbivore in Neotropical Savannas. Biotropica 38: 1744-7429. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-7429.2006.00180.x