QCOSTARICA – Leafcutter ants are ubiquitous in Costa Rica, except for the higher elevations. They are known commonly as zompopas.
In some countries they are called zompopos, the masculine version of the word. In fact, they are sterile females, so zompopa, the feminine form of the word is more accurate.
They are the reddish ants commonly seen carrying pieces of green leaf in long lines. It is also common to see them carrying bits of flowers or other plant material. The ants make easily recognizable trails from the plants they are attacking back to their nests.
Leafcutter ants are any of 47 species, belonging to two genera (a level of biological grouping between family and species). They range from the southern United States through all of Mexico and Central America and down into South America.
Many people think they carry the leaves back to the nest to eat. This is not true.
In fact, leafcutters were the world’s first farmers. They process the leaf matter and use it as a substrate to grow a fungus that feeds the colony.
After human beings, leafcutters comprise the largest and most complex societies on Earth. They are considered to be superorganisms—a coordinated group of individuals of the same species operating at a level that would be impossible without a division of labor. A large nest of zompopas can easily harbor millions of individuals.
It is estimated that leafcutters consume roughly 15% of all the leaf mass produced in Neotropical forests.
The next time you happen upon a leafcutter trail or nest, take a while to observe them.
They are interesting and industrious little creatures.