Saturday, September 13, 2014

Following the Breadcrumbs

            When I think of migrations I think of hundreds of squawking Canada geese flying through the Massachusetts horizon off to an unknown place. I see science documentaries following Monarch butterflies to Mexico. What I do not think of, is thousands of tiny ants carrying leaves on their backs - so tiny that one human step can crush dozens.
            When I first heard of leafcutter ants I imagined them deep in a forest, in seclusion where no one could find them. Interesting, yet probably not enough, that I would seek them out. Never did I think that one night walking to a lecture in Costa Rica would I find myself doubling back with my flashlight to check what I had just stepped on. I had unfortunately squashed a few leafcutter ants. What was more surprising was the phenomenon I saw afterwards. There were hundreds of ants all in a line, determinedly following each other. I took a few minutes to look and then pass on.
            The next night the same thing happened, and to my astonishment, in the exact same place! This time I followed their trail into the grass and noticed that they had walked over the ground so many times carrying their tiny pieces of leaves that they had left a path. Just like we humans leave paths with our concrete roads crashing through nature, the ants had done the same on a much smaller scale.
            What astonished me most was that they had laid down an answer to my questions. By their existence and my curiosity I was able to learn about them, appreciate them, and caution others in the future. Just like Hansel and Gretel left behind breadcrumbs to find their way back home, the ants were leaving a path to find their way to the ant hill.
            Never did I think that I would care so much about ants. They are annoying and I get bitten quite frequently. But they remind me about the importance of conservation. Not for just the "cool" animals like the poisonous frogs, the sloth, or the otters (which have all been equally amazing…) but the organisms that maintain the ecosystem around them in ways that I do not understand. If we as humans are determined to understand the world around us then we should also recognize the power we have, not only to help but also to destroy.
            As I have learned in my time here in Costa Rica, conservation at every level is necessary. Whether it be through the small rivers that are harmed due to mono-cropping, or the ants that decompose plants and leave nutrition in the ground – which along with all other insects make up 80% of Costa Rican species! There is an idea, the Contiguous Area Hypothesis, which states that there is a positive relationship between land area and animal diversity. Clearly if we reduce the land by putting in roads and houses we leave behind a trail of destruction, rather than a trail of discovery.
            Along with Hansel and Gretel, and my friends the leafcutter ants, I hope to leave a trail behind me of goodwill and aid to the conservation of every place I travel to. They have taught me not only to look up into the skies to watch birds fly by, but to gaze at my feet as ants scurry along.  


No comments: