UNH scanning electron microscope magnifies leafcutter ant head

Monday, February 6, 2023


UNH microscope image of leafcutter ant head, colorized red and blue

Students in associate professor of natural resources and the environment Jeff Garnas’s forest health course got an up-close look — extremely up close — at the head of a tropical leafcutter ant, collected in Ecuador in 2022. University Instrumentation Center analytical scientists Nancy Cherim and Mark Townley imaged this ant head using a scanning electron microscope at 60x magnification.

“Leafcutter ants are fascinating, since they cultivate fungal gardens to serve as an external gut for the colony,” says Garnas, adding that they also pose a threat to plantation-grown trees in the tropics. “The complex ‘ultrastucture’ on their bodies and heads also harbors bacteria that produce antibiotics that help the ants stay disease-free and to keep their garden free of ‘weeds,’ or parasitic fungi.” The microscopy magnification of the odor receptors on the ant’s antennae support his lessons on chemically-mediated communication in insects, which has pest management implications.

And while roses are red, ant heads are not: Cherim and Townley colorized the image, giving it the appearance of an entomological Valentine.