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Leafcutter Ant Fact File

Appearance

The leaf cutter ant is dark red in colour. Their body has six legs which makes them an insect. Extending from the top of the head is two long antennae. On the back portion of their body, the thorax, they have three spikes which help them to carry their food. They have two large black eyes on the side of their head and a further three simple eyes on top of the head.

Queen ants are the largest in the colony and measure up to 22mm (0.87in) long while a worker may be as small as 2mm (0.08in).

Diet

Leaf cutter ants are specialized to feed on a fungus known as Leucocoprineae which they farm themselves. This is grown on leaves which the ants collect from the forest. Workers and foragers feed upon the leaves while the queen and other ants within the nest will feed on fungus which is grown on the leaves.

To grow this fungus they remove the waxy coating from the leaves and chew them up before placing this in the fungus chamber. In the fungus chamber they are tended by minor and media ants.

Scientific Name

Atta cephalotes

Conservation Status

Not Evaluated

Length

Queen 22mm(0.87in)

Lifespan

Queen 10 years

Worker 1-2 years

Diet

Fungivorous

Range

South and Central America are the native home of the leaf cutter ant. Their range extends from Mexico in the North down to Bolivia and Brazil in the South.

Habitat

Leaf cutter ants make their home in natural habitats along with rainforests, woodlands, scrub forests and forest patches. They will also inhabit man made areas such as farms and plantations.

In these areas they dig a nest which is a congregation of tunnels underground.

Reproduction

Within the leaf cutter ant colony there is only one fertile member who is able to breed known as the queen. Across her lifetime she can lay up to 200 million offspring.

The rest of the members in the colony are infertile.

Each year the colony produces a limited number of winged colony members. These are known as alates and they will fly out of the nest to form a new colony. Mating takes place in the sky. Once they mate the male dies and the female will land and begin to dig her nest, at this time she loses her wings. In her mouth she carries a piece of fungus to the nest to start their culture. Once she has dug part of the nest she will start to lay eggs which soon hatch in to workers.

The flights of these alates typically take place at the start of the rainy season.Early colonies face many challenges to get established. As she cannot leave the nest to collect leaves she instead establishes the fungus using eggs. Instead of feeding on the fungus she will initially eat her eggs. Potentially as much as 90% of them are consumed by her.

It takes 40-50 days for larva to transform in to a pupa.The first larvae which hatch are feed on eggs and it is only once these metamorphose in to adults that they begin to tend the fungus and then they can eat the fungus. At this point egg laying intensifies and the colony begins to grow. A week or so later they start work on collecting leaves.

All worker eggs produced by the queen are female.

The worker ants can occasionally lay an egg though these are infertile and used to feed the eggs.

Behaviour

Worker ants leave the nest each day to go and forage for leaves to feed the fungus. These are carried over their head. These are collected by the medium sized media workers. These fragments may be up to 20 times the weight of the ant. To cut the leaf their jaw vibrates thousands of times per second. They secrete a chemical to help find their way back to nest.

A leaf cutter ant colony is made up of four different members. There is the single queen who lays the eggs. The smallest members are called the minimas who primarily tend the fungus and provide protection for the workers medias while they forage. Medias are the medium sized ants who forage for leaves. Workers are the largest members and they defend the colony against attack.

Leaf cutter ants help their habitat by trimming back trees. This helps light to reach the forest floor and allows plants to grow there.

Predators and Threats

A species of fly called the phorid fly will lay their eggs on the head of leaf cutter ants while they are carrying leaves.

To defend against this they will have a minim worker ride on their leaf fragment to keep the flies away.

Quick facts

They are also known as the parasol ant due to the way in which they carry leaves over their head.

Photo Credits

Top

Public Domain

Bottom

William Warby from London, England / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

References

Burnie, D., 2011. Animal. 3rd ed. London: DK

Ambrose, J., 2015. Wildlife Of The World. 1st ed. London: Dorling Kindersley.

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden®. 2020. Leaf-Cutting Ant - Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden®. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 June 2020].

Wildlife, M., 2020. Leaf-Cutter Ants (Atta Cephalotes). [online] Marwell Zoo. Available at: [Accessed 11 June 2020].

Oaklandzoo.org. 2020. Oakland Zoo. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 June 2020].

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