Many of the most amazing rainforest animals we’ve looked at have been big animals. However, one of the most incredible rainforest animals of all is very small. Leafcutter ants eat more rainforest vegetation than any other type of animal. Not only that, they actually grow their own food, and live in colonies that can contain over eight million insects! Let’s learn more leafcutter ant facts …
Part of our Rainforest Animals series.
Leafcutter Ant Information
Leafcutter ants live in huge colonies on the forest floor. Their colonies are very complex, and every ant has a specialised role to play within the colony.
Leafcutter ants vary in size and appearance depending on their role within the colony. These physical differences are so large that it is hard to believe that ants in the same colony are actually the same species! Some ants are large; some are small; some have wings; and some have big mandibles (teeth)!
Leafcutter Ants Grow Their Own Food!
Leafcutter ants are often seen in lines, bringing pieces of leaves back to the nest. The leaves are used to feed fungus, which is grown by the ants in a special ‘fungus garden’ in the nest. This fungus provides food for the colony.
The fungus can’t survive without the ants, and the ants can’t survive without the fungus. This is known as a ‘symbiotic relationship’.
The film below shows leafcutter ants at work, and also has views of the ants’ fungus garden.
Leafcutter Ants – Scientific Stuff
There are 47 species of leafcutter ants. All leafcutter ants are in the Myrmicinae subfamily of the main ant family, Formicidae.
Within the Myrmicinae subfamily, there are two main groups, or genera, of leafcutter ants: Atta and Acromyrmex.
Leafcutter ants are fairly large ants, and are a reddish-brown colour. They have small spines on their backs.
Like all insects, a leafcutter ant’s body comprises three main parts: head, thorax and abdomen. The head is where the mouth and sensory organs are found, the thorax is where the legs and wings are joined to, and the abdomen houses the digestive and reproductive organs.
Leafcutter ants have two long antennae, and five eyes: two big, compound eyes on either side of their heads, and three simple eyes on the tops of their heads.
Leafcutter Ants In The Rainforest
Leafcutter ants live throughout Central and South America. They are also found in North America: Mexico and some southern US states have leafcutter ant populations.
Leafcutter ants play an important part in the rainforest ecosystem, and are responsible for eating incredible amounts of rainforest vegetation. They are the rainforest’s most prolific herbivore, eating more vegetation than any other type of creature.
This has a big effect on the rainforest ecosystem. It is thought that the ants improve the richness of the soil, and, by removing leaves from the trees, allow sunlight to reach the lower levels of the forest.
Leafcutter Ant Colony Facts
Leafcutter ant social structure is extremely complex. There can be over one million ants in a single colony!
Leafcutter ant nests are complex underground structures with multiple chambers and passages. Nests can be from 30m2 to 35m2 in area, and several metres deep, with up to 8,000 chambers and tunnels 70m long, depending on the species.
The nest’s chambers are built at depths that provide a suitable temperature for their intended use.
Each ant has a role to play within the colony, and their size and physical appearance reflects what their job is within the colony.
The ant society consists of four main social levels, or ‘castes’: minims, minors, mediae, and majors.
Minims mainly work inside the nest, tending to the fungus and ant larvae.
Minors protect the foraging columns and also guard the nest.
Mediae carry heavier loads back to the nest.
Majors provide additional security when the nest is threatened.
Some species of leafcutter ants remove waste material from the nest and take it to special areas, others have chambers within the nest to store waste.
When carrying loads back to the nest, minors are susceptible to attack from phorid flies. These flies are parasitic, and lay eggs on the heads of the ants. To prevent this, minims are known to ride on the larger ant’s back (or on the top of the leaf being carried), to fend off any attacks.
The video below has some great views of leafcutter ants at work!
Once the leaves are brought in to the nest, the ants turn them into food for the fungus garden. This process involves removing the waxy outer layer of the leaves then chewing them up. The food is then taken to the fungus garden.
The fungus grown in the garden provides food for the queen and other ants inside the nest. Workers and foragers get nutrition from the leaves.
Once a year, the colony will produce winged ants (called alates) of both sexes. These ants fly high in the air to mate. After doing so, the males die and the females lose their wings and attempt to start their own colonies.
The new queen carries a piece of the colony’s fungus in a special cavity in her mouth. She will locate a suitable location for a new nest, and excavate a chamber. The fungus is used to start a new fungus garden. The queen lays eggs to begin a new colony.
Leafcutter Ant Facts
- Scientists have only recorded a tiny proportion of the insect species that live in the Amazon rainforest. It is thought that there could be millions of different insects living in the region.
- Many rainforest creatures eat leafcutter ants, including anteaters, armadillos, and many species of reptiles and birds.
- Only 2.5% of queens successfully start a new colony.
- Ants are able to detect if a particular type of plant is unsuitable for feeding to the fungus, and will avoid that plant in future.
- In some areas, leafcutter ants are considered pests, as they can cause considerable damage to crops.
- Most of the ants in the nest are female, but only the queens can produce eggs.
- The new queens are responsible for feeding and tending to the new fungus garden themselves.
- Most of the first eggs laid by the queen are eaten by her and her larvae.
- The biggest soldier ants are only deployed when the threat warrants their use. Smaller threats are dealt with by smaller ants.
- Older ants are used to transport waste from the nest, freeing up younger ants to perform more important tasks.
- Leafcutter ants live in a symbiotic partnership with the fungus. This means that each species relies on the other to survive.
- Trails of foraging ants can be as long as 30m.
- Leafcutter ants can be beneficial to the rainforest ecosystem by creating rich soil that stimulates growth in nearby plants.
- The ant life cycle has four stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult.
Leafcutter Ant Facts: Conclusion
We hope that you have enjoyed learning about these amazing rainforest animals. Next time you’re outside, have a look down and see if you can see any ants.
Okay, they may not be quite as amazing as leafcutter ants (unless you live in a rainforest), but they still live in their own complex colony, right next to ours!
Find out about more amazing rainforest animals here.