Introducing Alex Lambert's "My Fantasy Environment: A Narrative Cartography Project"

An Exploration into our Leafcutter Ant Brethren


Map of a Leafcutter Ant Colony

Map of a Leafcutter Ant Colony with Overlaid Pheromones

I love ants. They are individually weak and not that smart, but they are able to maintain vast and complex colonies that can mimic humans in so many ways! Yet for some reason, the sophistication of their society is lost in our culture. I started this assignment by brainstorming how I could connect this topic to humanity and the environment, so I decided to make a commentary on the deforestation of the Amazon (the leafcutter ants’ main habitat). I then researched the common traits of the colony and began drawing the outline, starting with a mild hill over the colony from the excavated dirt through multiple exits that all lead to rooms connected smoothly by tunnels. I designated the lowest chambers for waste as is common for leafcutter ants, then allocated the rest to be for the fungus farms and larvae storage. After this, I added all the ants while attempting to show the very cooperative power structure that the ants utilize. The anteater and deforested area followed, allowing me to also show how vulnerable the ants are to outside forces and reveal the human interaction as well. Finally, I included a twist I was planning from the beginning: I made a clear plastic sheet over the map that could show a few of the ant pheromones (I would have included more than six, but I prioritized readability over accuracy). I wanted this twist as a way to really reveal the ultimate foundation of ant society as this is how they communicate complicated messages to the entire colony. I think the map turned out well as it balanced the complexity ingrained in this subject with enough simplicity to be digestible.


Even when talking about other species, we often connect back to humanity and the gap of how advanced we are. This is best reflected in how we talk about human impact on the environment, we act like humans aren’t natural at all and neither are our creations, we view ourselves as a parasitic alien on the planet. Although we are by far the most harmful species, we are still like any other animal found on Earth. Architecture, managing farms, keeping livestock, building roads and waging wars, none of these characteristics of humanity are unique (all of them are found in ants alone).


I think we need to shift our conversations to realize that we are just acting on our inborn instincts as any other animal does, only after we have accepted this can we truly begin to change our behaviors to be more mindful of our effects on the planet. On a surface level, this map just shows another way in which humans are hurting fragile species, but I hoped this would give a deeper look into the nature of humanity. As humans, we follow our impulses blindly, even deciding to go against your own instincts is determined by a few extra molecules in a region in our brain. We are no more special than ants, both us and them only stick to hidden forces, but we can harness them to be positive and cooperative like the ants. If we can recognize this, I believe we can shift our culture to utilize our impulses to function in a beneficial way, rather than the current destructive path. By default, we want to be part of a community and want to feel like we are helping, we just need to facilitate these instincts so people can stop the literal doom of our planet and our own society.


My map attempts to address the idea that humanity is distinct and separate from the environment. Our society is not alien, we are just as much part of nature as any other species. I used the ants to try to communicate this message because they are already perceived at natural, so if I can draw connections between ourselves and them then I can portray that idea. Leafcutter ants build infrastructure, they can make farms, they have a complex communication system, so how are humans special? Humanity is natural, protecting nature is protecting ourselves. We can be wild beasts at times, so let us use our moments of clarity to push our society forward before it is too late.


Works Cited

- Diez, Lise, et al. “Emergency Measures: Adaptive Response to Pathogen Intrusion in the Ant Nest.” Behavioural Processes, Elsevier, 1 May 2015, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0376635715001230.

- “Leafcutter Ant Fungus: Leafcutter Ant Food.” Orkin.com, 9 Nov. 2018, www.orkin.com/ants/leafcutter-ants/leafcutter-ant-fungus.

- “Study: Tiny 'Ecosystem Engineers' Are an Overlooked Source of Carbon Dioxide Emissions.” Study: Tiny 'Ecosystem Engineers' Are an Overlooked Source of Carbon Dioxide Emissions | Newsroom, 4 Mar. 2019, news.ucmerced.edu/news/2019/study-tiny-%E2%80%98ecosystem-engineers%E2%80%99-are-overlooked-source-carbon-dioxide-emissions.

- Swanson, Amanda C., et al. “Welcome to the Atta World: A Framework for Understanding the Effects of Leaf‐Cutter Ants on Ecosystem Functions.” Besjournals, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 28 Mar. 2019, besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2435.13319.


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