Students will research leaf cutter ants on 2018 Costa Rica trip


Leaf cutter ants form some of the largest and most complex animal societies on earth, and during this year’s Costa Rica trip, from July 26-Aug. 4, 2018 sixteen students will immerse themselves in science by studying them for 8 days.

Along with US Science teacher Beth Seibel-Hunt, and several other teachers who will be selected sometime in the future, these 16 students will stay on a cacao plantation. As an introduction, they will learn about the process of changing the cacao fruit into the cacao bean, and so on.

“The food is excellent, and the accommodations are very comfortable,” Seibel-Hunt said.

The group will stay in dorm style bungalows, and food will be prepared by the staff who works at the plantation.

The students will then study and conduct experiments on the species which they came to Costa Rica for.

“Leaf cutter ants are an amazingly intricate and complex species,” Seibel-Hunt said.

Leaf cutter ant societies are based on an ant and fungus mutualism, where the colony feeds the fungus with decayed plant material, and gains food from the fungus itself in return.

Even more amazing, leaf cutter ants secrete antibiotics from their bodies, which have a practical use for keeping their colony safe from parasite funguses, and a real life use when people made the connection between these ant’s secretions and the ability to create antibiotics for human use.

With the help of Costa Rican professors and their life’s work of studying leaf cutter ants, the students will have incredible resources when creating and conducting experiments.

“I thought the Costa Rican professors would need help to be able to teach how SPA students are used to being taught, but I was absolutely wrong, and they were incredible teachers,” Seibel-Hunt said.

Students will learn how ant colonies are divided into hierarchical castes, with the queen on top, and the rest of the power based mostly on size. They will learn how the largest ants become soldiers which defend the colony, and how smaller ants fill roles such as the famous foragers, which can carry up to 500 times their own weight. They will learn about the fungus garden caretakers who cultivate the fungus, and about the waste management crew that disposes of other parasitic funguses which compete with their food source, and threaten the colony’s survival.

“The whole point of the trip is to immerse yourselves in science,” Beth Seibel-Hunt said.

Within a few years, a network of underground ant nests can grow to be larger than a football field.

The main focus of The Costa Rica trip is Science, as the 16 students who go will participate in over 50 hours of science in 8 days, but besides science, they will participate in fun activities like zip lining, horseback riding, hiking on inactive volcanoes, and board games.

The summer 2017 trip created life-long bonds:  “By the end of the trip we were a family of 16, everybody knew everyone,” Seibel-Hunt said.

The 16 students who will go on the Costa Rica trip will be selected through completion of an essay, answering why they are interested in going, and how they plan to use what they learn during the trip in the future. The priority deadline for the essay was on Oct. 17 at 3:00 pm, and the final deadline is on Oct. 31. The Costa Rica trip will cost a total of $3610.

For more information on the trip, contact Seibel-Hunt at [email protected] or in person.