London: A team of scientists has discovered a sophisticated underground ant city that was once populated by millions of leafcutter ants.
The abandoned megalopolis, which features vast subterranean highways, paths and gardens, was found buried beneath the earth in Brazil, the Daily Mail reported.
It is thought to have housed one of the biggest ant colonies in the world. But no one is sure when the leafcutter species left and what caused their demise.
Experts poured ten tonnes of concrete into holes on the surface, which served as air conditioning ducts for the ants, to expose the tunnels by solidifying in the space.
It took ten days to pour the material down the labyrinth of channels, which covered an area of 500sq ft and extended to 26ft below the surface.
After a month, scientists, led by professor Luis Forgi, began digging and revealed that the incredible city described as the “ant equivalent of the Great Wall of China”.
The community of ants, described as a “superorganism” because of the way they coordinated themselves, carried out a Herculean task building their giant home.
Each insect would have repeatedly carried loads of earth, weighing more times more than the worker, a distance of what would be just over half a mile in human terms.
The leaf-chewing creatures, the leafcutter ant, are understood to form the second most complex societies on Earth after our own. A single queen will collect the 300 million sperm form males before she sets up her colony.
Then, her spawn, whose size will determine their function and future caste, will go about building and collecting vegetation.
This plant matter is used to produce fungus, which sustains ant larvae. Other ants’ sole role will be to take care of waste. They tend to be the older or more disposable in the community.
In particular, they are responsible for the removal of dangerous parasites such as the phorid fly. This creature sows its seed of destruction by laying its eggs into the crevices of the worker ants'' head.
Larger ants, known as majors, are used to deter such enemies and are, in essence, an organised army. They can lift up to 50 times their weight. As with the armed forces in human societies they sometimes help with engineering projects such as digging tunnels.
In total, they excavated around 40 tonnes of soil to create the labyrinth, revealed the Nature’s Secret Power documentary, also featuring Dr Bert Holldobler from the Arizona State University.
The network was designed to allow good ventilation and provide the shortest transport routes. It features scores of highways connecting the main chambers – and, off the main routes, are side roads.
From there, paths branch out and lead to the many rubbish pits and fungus gardens, which are grown from the vegetation collected by the workers.
Leafcutter ants, which can produce similar colonies in a space the size of an acorn, have created such societies, all governed by a queen, all over the Americas.
First Published: Friday, February 03, 2012, 13:47