It would be difficult to visit a rainforest without spotting one of the many varieties of ants that call this environment their home. Ants are extremely abundant in rainforest ecosystems and can account for half of the insects found in a region of the rainforest, according to National Geographic. Ants therefore have a significant impact on the rainforest environment.
A single ant colony can be home to more than 5 million members, so it's little wonder that ants make up so much of the biomass of the rainforest environments they inhabit. In some rainforests, for example those around Manaus in Brazil, ants alongside termites make up roughly 30 per cent of the animal biomass, as noted by E.J. Fittkau et al in the essay "On Biomass and Trophic Structure of the Central Amazonian Rainforest Ecosystem." More than 10,000 species of ant exist across the planet, as the National Geographic website notes; within rainforest environments, even a small patch containing just two trees can contain 79 species of ant, as J.E. Tobin suggests in the essay "Ants as Primary Consumers: Diet and Abundance in the Formicidae."
Contrary to their common perception as fearsome predators, most rainforest ants tend to feast mainly on plants in the manner of grazing beasts, as reported by the New Scientist website. Since the ants can't chew and digest leaves, they instead find food sources such as pollen and plant sap. Leafcutter ants live up to their name by slicing off pieces of leaves and carrying them back to their nests. But they don't eat the leaves directly, instead these miniature farmers grow crops of fungus on the decaying vegetable matter to feed the colony.
Relationship with Trees
The relationship between ants and trees is diverse and complex. At a basic level, ants use the natural hollows inside plants to house and protect their colonies. In return, the ants kill off predators of the plant as well as the vegetation that competes with their home plant for essentials such as soil nutrients. In rainforests such as the Amazon in Peru, researchers have discovered that ants sometimes excavate into trees to create the hollows they desire as homes. These trees are left with scars called galls.
Army ants are one of the more common varieties of these insects in the rainforest, and use their huge numbers to overwhelm much larger prey such as scorpions. These ants also possess tough hides, as well as strong jaws to crunch their food. Trap jaw ants, meanwhile, have swiftly shutting jaws, which can be used to consume food as well as to catapult themselves by clasping onto objects such as rocks. Another species native to the Amazon, the fire ant, is able to survive the area's regular flooding by creating rafts to transport their colonies -- using only the combined mass of the colony's members.
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- Amazon Rainforest: Amazon Rainforest Fauna
- Think Jungle: Rainforest Life: Rainforest Ants
- New Scientist; Herbivorous Ants Munch through Rainforest; James Randerson; May 8, 2003
- The University of Utah News Center: How Ants Secretly Damage Rainforests
- "Biotropica"; On Biomass and Trophic Structure of the Central Amazonian Rainforest Ecosystem; E.J. Fittkau et al.; 1973
- "Nourishment and Evolution in Insect Societies"; Ants as Primary Consumers: Diet and Abundance in the Formicidae; J.E. Tobin; 1994