Ants and the Mimosa

Trip Start Apr 17, 2001
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Costa Rica  , Province of Cartago,
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

While Ellen toils this week in Toronto I'm in Latin America, a guest of the Costa Rica Tourist Board. Three American journalists and I were invited to do a familiarization trip focusing on extreme sports. I could have written about what it's like to rappel down a seventeen metre waterfall, get tossed out of an inner tube in class IV rapids, or whitewater raft down the treacherous Pacuare River. Instead though, today's lesson will focus on flora and fauna.

Leaf cutter ants scurry about the forest on trails they've made for themselves carrying bits of leaf that are approximately ten times their own size. Although I've see them many times before I never had a clue of their goal. Here's how it works: The leaf cutters aren't leaf cutters at all, but simply carriers. To show the strength of the carriers, Massi our tour guide, picked up one of the one-centimetre carriers, held it between his fingers, and then placed a stick of about twenty-five centimetres up to its undercarriage. This tiny creature held the stick for almost ten seconds before dropping it to the ground. But there's far more to this nature tale. The first ant, or actual 'leaf cutter', cuts tiny pieces of fresh green leaf, then the carriers lug them on their backs towards the den. All the while tiny cleaner ants, about a tenth the size of the stronger carriers, walk along the carried leaves cleaning them of bacteria. When the cargo arrives at the den a third ant chews the leaf pieces, and then deposits the leaf goop on the den floor. After a time, fungus grows on the leaves and this becomes food for the entire clan.

Their cousins, the soldier ant, march with much grimmer intent. When they descend on their prey, colonies of other bugs, they circle their hapless dinner, then attack. Apparently, Costa Rican home owners are pleased when their homes are invaded by these little Infantrymen. It means that within a short time their houses will be bug free and the ants will simply move on in search of yet another dinner. But much like the cutters this cycle of life story doesn't stop there. Birds follow soldier ants waiting to eat the scattering bugs as they attempt to fly off in escape. Butterflies follow the birds around and eat the excrement of the bug filled birds. And everyone thinks butterflies are so pretty. I'll call them lazy, stool eaters from this day on.

During a jungle hike Massi showed us tiny, three centimetre fern-like plants called Mimosa.
"Watch when I touch this plant", he said. "The leaves will shrivel and close right up."
"When I drink five mimosas, I open right up," replied the ever ready wunderkind writer Samantha from Los Angeles.
Once the mimosa feels that the danger has passed it reverts quickly back to its natural form.

Today, while the rest of the group are off climbing up thirty-three hundred metres in the cold rain to look down into the hole of Turrialba Volcano, I'm resting in my cabin reading Carl Hiaasen's novel Tourist Season. I tried to persuade the group leader to do an urban hike through the back alleys of San Jose instead, but it wasn't to be.
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