Leafcutter Ants are part of a subgroup of 47 species of ants have a mutual relationship with fungus, and use leaf trimmings to cultivate their fungi friends.
Leafcutter Ants are found in the Southern United States, Mexico, Central and South America. In Costa Rica, they are represented by the species Atta cephalotes, and make their large underground colonies in the rainforest floor. Their nests are always made in a location where the wind will aid in removing noxious CO2 created by the fungus that they cultivate.
Mating & Reproduction
Leafcutter Ants, like other colonies of ants, have a queen that produces a generational brood- thus propagating the colony. Some queens in Leafcutter Ant colonies can live up to fifteen years, and build colonies as large as five million residents.
Leafcutter Ants are divided into task partitioning castes that are made up of workers and soldiers. Before a queen has developed her colony, she must mate with many different male ants. The male and female breeder ants are winged, and they take off in a nuptial flight before mating. The queen stores 300 million sperm collected from multiple suitors in order to build her colony. She also stores a small amount of the fungus spores that the ant colony will use as food in her mouth.
The rate of success for new female queens in establishing new colonies is very low at only 2.5%.
Because the ant colony is built in castes, each ant is given a particular function. Soldier ants guard the entrance to the nest, and they suss out potential predators by going on scouting missions. The primarily female worker ants are subdivided into three different groups. There the middle sized ants who are responsible for gathering the leaves used for feeding their fungus. Next, there are the minima sized ants that are responsible for further cutting up the leaf trimmings, and managing the farm.
The last caste of Leafcutter Ants manage the refuse of the colony, and are not allowed in the main area of the colony. When these ants try to escape the refuse center, the other ants either kill them or force them back into the dump. They have extremely short lives, because they are contaminated with diseases and toxins produced by the decontamination process of the regular area of the colony.
Leafcutter Ants are considered to be over 25 million years old, and have a very specialized society that has developed over the course of evolution. Their nests can be as wide as twenty feet of the rainforest floor, and can extend down up to 7 meters.
Locations in Costa Rica: Cahuita National Park, Carara National Park, La Amistad International Park, Arenal Volcano National Park, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
Migration Pattern: non-migratory
Habitat: underground, rainforest floor
Species: Atta cephalotes