Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 12.djvu/365

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OUR SIX-FOOTED RIVALS.

Nor are the purely vegetarian ants of less importance in the economy of the countries they inhabit. They decide, in a manner, what trees shall grow and what shall be exterminated, and it is only such as are comparatively distasteful to them that escape. In Nicaragua, they render the acclimatization of any foreign tree or vegetable a task of great difficulty. Mr. Belt was often told, on asking the reason why no fruit-trees were grown at certain places: "It is of no use planting them; the ants eat them up." These ants climb up the trees, when "each one, stationing itself on the edge of a leaf, commences to make a circular cut from the edge with its scissor-like jaws, its hinder feet being the centre on which it turns. When the piece is nearly cut off, it is still stationed upon it, and it looks as though it would fall to the ground with it; but, on being finally detached, the ant is generally found to have hold of the leaf with one foot, and, soon righting itself and arranging its burden to its satisfaction, it sets off at once on its return."

An observer, standing near the ant-hills, "sees from every point of the compass ant-paths leading to them, all thronged with the busy workers carrying their leafy burdens. As far as the eye can distinguish their tiny forms, troops upon troops of leaves are moving up toward the central point and disappearing down the numerous tunneled passages. The ceaseless toiling hosts impress one with their power, and one asks, 'What forests can stand before such invaders?'" Concerning the use to which the ant-leaves are put, some difference of opinion prevails; that they do not directly serve as food is admitted. Mr. Bates, from observations made in Brazil, concludes that "the leaves are used to thatch the domes which cover the entrances to their subterranean dwellings, thereby protecting from the deluging rains the young brood in the nests beneath." Mr. Belt, who has carefully examined the habits of an allied species in Nicaragua, believes that the real use they make of them is as a manure, on which grows a minute species of fungus on which they feed—that they are, in reality, mushroom growers and eaters. The reasons for this view are given in detail in Mr. Belt's work, and appear very satisfactory. But Mr. Bates's view may be correct also. In short, save man alone, there is no creature which can effect such widespread and profound alterations in the condition of a country as the tiny ant. It has been indeed mentioned in the Quarterly Journal of Science that the pig, the goat, and the rabbit, have succeeded in extirpating the natural flora, and consequently, to a great extent, the fauna, of certain islands, such as St. Helena. Yet this takes place only in countries where there are no carnivorous beasts, birds, and reptiles, to keep them in check. But in every warm and fruitful climate the ant is king. This power, we perceive, is not due to mere numbers; it is, in great part, the result of organization. Other species of insects are perhaps even more numerous, and, individually considered, as capable of destructive action;