A Look at Leafcutter Ants

Tufts Biology students publish research on leafcutter ants in peer-reviewed journal.
Leafcutter ants

A group of undergraduate and graduate Tufts students have published a paper in the journal Insectes Sociaux. The newly published research examines how leafcutter ants transport leaf fragments from trees to their nest. The ants subsequently use the fragments to grow fungus, which they eat. Using observational data gathered in Costa Rica, the research specifically examined the frequency with which ants passed leaf fragments to one another at different points on the tree: on the tree’s trunk, at the base, and on the ground. It also looked into what methods the ants used at these different points, either passing fragments directly to one another or dropping leaf fragments for others to pick up.

The student authors include Katja Kwaku, Biology master’s student; Elena Gonick, A20; Maria Ostapovich, A20, and current Biology master’s student; and Isaac Weinberg, Biology PhD student. The group began planning the study design in Fall 2019 as part of Professor Colin Orians’ course “Biology 181: Tropical Ecology and Conservation.” At the end of the Fall semester, for the last two weeks of winter break, the course traveled to Costa Rica to complete the research projects they had been developing and to experience the tropical flora and fauna they had spent the semester learning about. The trip was funded by the Sandler International Research Program.

After completing the study and writing up their findings for the course’s final report, the group decided to re-edit and prepare the research paper to submit to journals for consideration for publication. They met weekly during the spring and summer to fine-tune their work. The paper was accepted by Insectes Sociaux for publication on the first day of the Fall 2020 semester.

Study author Katja Kwaku said of the experience, “It was all of our first times as published authors on a peer-reviewed ecology paper, so it was great that we got to go through the peer review process together.”