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Leafcutter Ants Prepare for Winter at Nature Museum

By Paul Biasco | December 25, 2012 10:35am
 One of thousands of leafcutter ants at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, which can lift up to 50 times their weight.
One of thousands of leafcutter ants at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, which can lift up to 50 times their weight.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

LINCOLN PARK — The state's largest colony of leafcutter ants are preparing for their first Chicago winter at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

The tiny creatures are taste testing a wide range of leaves, fruits and even oatmeal because the ant's favorite leaf, the rose, has died off.

The thousands of ants, which originate in Panama and are capable of carrying a leaf up to 50 times their own weight, were put on display as a temporary exhibit at the museum late this fall but will now be there permanently.

The museum's colony of ants came from New Orleans this year and has since thrived.

The museum's vice president of conservation and research, Doug Taron, made the road trip to the Big Easy to grab the ants in the midst of a hurricane.

"He battled his way through bad weather, hurricanes, dodges through fronts, got to New Orleans, loaded them up in a giant cooler and then drove back like a maniac listening to hard rock the whole way," said Karen Wilson, the museum's invertebrate specialist.

Now that the ants have settled into their new home, Wilson is working to figure out what to feed them through the winter.

So far, some of the ant's favorites have been radish tops, romaine lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, apples and oranges.

One difficulty the museum faces is finding plants that haven't been treated with pesticide. But some farms at the Green City Market, which sets up shop in the museum in the winter, have pitched in.

"We have a really generous farmer who has some beautiful organic radish tops," Wilson said. "She just gave us a couple of bags full and they [the ants] were so exited they just went to town."

The mesmerizing ants — which range in size from the brute soldier ants who provide protection to the medium sized do-it-alls to the little ones in the nest — have been popular draw for kids.

"If you can get them to stop long enough to see what's happening, they won't walk away," said Sophie McNeill, who works for the museum's education and outreach program.

The have also caught the eyes of the staff.

"Our security guards admit they get caught up here staring at them," said Wilson.