The ants, which produce enough nitrous oxide to rival the emissions of cattle, carry items in their jaws up to 50 times their own weight.
Leafcutter ants found in Central and South America rival cows for their greenhouse gas emissions of nitrous oxide, scientists at the University of Michigan report.
According to a study published Thursday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, the insects create the largest natural nitrous oxide hotspots ever recorded in tropical forests.
This includes the type of nitrous oxide spikes often seen in “wastewater treatment tanks or dairy cow manure lagoons,” the study says.
Scientists from the University of Montana made the discovery by chance while working on another project that examined greenhouse gas emission patterns in Costa Rica’s rainforests.
“Nature is just amazing and gets more amazing to me every day,” said University of Montana Professor Cory Cleveland. “We just have to look for it.”
There are 47 known species of leafcutter ants in the world. The ants stimulate vegetation growth when they harvest leaves, which they use to cultivate fungal growth in their nests. The fungus in turn provides food for the ants and their larvae.
The research team said the ants are not a major contributor to climate change and that mankind is still the primary contributor, but the ants' gas production is still worth further study.