The leaf cutter ant colonies in the forest vary in size from brand new colonies to colonies that have perhaps 8 million ants in the colony. We deal with a species of leaf cutters called Atta Cephalotes. These leaf cutter ants can be seen marching single file through the rainforest with leaf sections twice as large as the ants themselves. These sections of tropical forest leaves have been harvested form the very top of the canopy of the rainforest where the leaf cutters ascend to use their fast cutting lower jaws(mini saws that operate at 1200 cycles per second) to cut the leaf sections from the forest canopy. These leaves are toxic to the ants, never the less the ants transport the leaf sections down the height of the forest trees, along the forest floor to the entrance to the tunnel system that interconnects the various chambers of their colony. Once at the entry to the leaf cutter ant underground maize the leaf cutter turns the leaf over to another worker ant that is more suited to shredding the leaf into a pulverized mass at the same time as the ant creates a new compost pile of shredded material deep into the bowls of the system of chambers that make up the colonies underground city.
Once the material decays it provides nutrients which allows fungus to grow and it is the tips of the fungus that the ants use for food. Thus, we have another species on our planet, beside ourselves, that undertake farming to raise their own crops for subsistence. However, for 10 decades there was a mystery as to how these ants kept their fungus gardens free of contaminating pathogens.
This was a world class mystery until a young PHD student(Cameron Currie from the University of Montreal) came along and discovered that these fungus gardens not only have a deadly parasitic mold(called Escovopsis), but that the ants are indeed producing antibiotics which serve to provide protection to these rainforest ant cities from infections of their massive fungus gardens. Cameron Currie discovered that these ants cultivate a bacteria called Streptomyces which is the source of roughly half of the antibiotics manufactured by our pharmaceutical industry. This remarkable discovery has now given us a new mystery. The antibiotics that our pharmaceutical industry produces can only manufacture antibiotics that remain effective for two or three or four generations. We are literally running out of antibiotics because the diseases we use these against are evolving resistance to our antibiotics faster than we can create new antibiotics to be used against the new strains of diseases. Our population faces an imminent disaster as each year we have fewer effective antibiotics that the year before. We are running out of antibiotics at a rate that should be seen as nothing more than a looming catastrophe. Yet these ants have been successful in maintaining their fungus gardens for 65 million years. How do these leaf cutter ants, with brains the size of half a grain of sand, produce antibiotics in such a way to keep them viable for such a long period of time when as human beings we are not able to even keep our antibiotics viable for 50 years? Pulitzer Prize winning biologist Edward Wilson, who has made his life studying ants, has created the term “Superorganism” to describe what the combined intellectual power of social animals operating in mass with a single social goal can accomplish, feats that seem impossible to us never mind the low level cranium power of a tiny insect. Here is a subject worthy of research, the answer to which would have an obvious affect on the health
It is important that participants in this program understand the rationale as to why Costa Rica is suited as the ideal location for tropical field research. Costa Rica is situated at the juncture of Central America and South America and it is a long standing democracy with strong ties to the United States. It is often referred to as the Switzerland of Central America with a stable economic and political base. The country is known for disbanding its army back in 1949 and applying the savings to medical care and education within the country. In addition, Costa Rica has taken the unusual step of setting aside more than 27% of its land mass in national parks, biological reserves, national wildlife refuges and privately protected areas, to protect rainforest, a unique effort amongst all countries on the planet.
As planet earth underwent its continental development over hundreds of million years the land mass that is now Costa Rica became the land bridge between the South American continent and North and Central America. This was the geographic corridor which merged species from the two continents. The small narrow country is divided by a chain of volcanoes that form the continental divide between the Pacific side of the country and the Caribbean side. It is this geographic phenomenon that has created a land mass with dozens of microclimates, each of which supports a series of life forms suitable for the environment of the area. It is entirely possible for the traveler to be in a tropical rainforest at one moment and twenty minutes later find ones self in a Swiss Alps setting or in the same timeframe in a Northern Minnesota pine forest or a Caribbean beach or a Sahara desert.
It is this unique set of circumstances that grants Costa Rica a biodiversity not found other places. For example there are more than 850 species of birds, more than all of North America, 9000 species of flowers, 1200 species of just orchids, and more than 35,000 species of insects discovered so far including more than 2000 species of butterflies. It is this biodiversity that provides the natural setting for discoveries of new species of mammals or reptiles or plants or amphibians. It is this setting that gives Costa Rica an incredible menu for researchers using natural science as a basis for new discoveries. Today Universities, governments and Pharmaceutical companies have basic research projects underway in Costa Rica, taking advantage of the immense natural resource base one finds in these forests and jungles.
It is in this environment that Seeds of Change has chosen to host science trips by high school students in an area which even by Costa Rica standards offers bountiful biodiversity. Our research site is on the north east slope of the Rincon de La Vieja Volcano in an area known as the Rincon Rainforest. This is an area where tropical rainforest, cloud forest and dry rainforest converge to provide an explosion of bio-diversity. It is a remote area untouched by development or tourism which flourishes in much of the country. By hosting our students in this area our students are not only in a target rich research zone, they are also in a geographic area which a simple subsistence level life is the norm for villagers, giving our students exposure to a whole new view of life we cannot appreciate in our North American mindset.