Atta cephalotes, the Giant Leafcutter Ants are brown-orange and vary in size - from 2mm nano-ants to 20mm majors with strong mandibles for cutting plant matter. Contrary to popular belief, the ants don't directly consume the leaves they cut, but instead, bring them into the nest where they serve as food for a symbiotic Leucocoprinus Gongylophorus fungus. This fungus can break down the plant cellulose to create nutrients for the entire ant colony.
Unlike most ants that rely on scavenging for food, leaf-cutter ants have evolved a sophisticated farming system. The leaves they cut are not eaten directly but are used as a substrate for cultivating a specific type of fungus. This fungus serves as their primary food source. By cutting and bringing leaves back to their nests, the ants create an ideal environment for the fungus to grow and thrive.
The process of leaf cutting is a collective effort carried out by different castes within the ant colony. The workers, which are sterile females, are responsible for cutting leaves. They use their powerful jaws to slice through the leaves and create leaf fragments of various sizes. These leaf fragments are then carried back to the nest by the workers, forming long lines of ants moving in a coordinated manner. This impressive division of labour allows leaf-cutter ants to efficiently gather enough leaves to sustain their fungus gardens.
How do leaf-cutter ants build their nests?
The construction of a leaf cutter ant nest begins with the excavation of soil. The workers dig deep underground tunnels, creating a vast network of interconnected chambers. These chambers serve different purposes, such as housing the ant brood, storing fungus, and providing ventilation. One of the most remarkable features of leaf-cutter ant nests is the presence of specialized chambers called "fungus gardens." These gardens serve as the primary location for cultivating the fungus that leaf-cutter ants depend on for food. The workers carefully tend to these gardens by maintaining optimal moisture levels and removing any harmful contaminants.
Leaf cutter ants in the UK
In the UK, leafcutters are considered an exotic and intriguing species. They are often kept in specially designed enclosures where visitors can observe their fascinating leaf-cutting behaviour. These enclosures mimic the ants' natural habitat and provide the necessary conditions for the ants to thrive. Leafcutter ant nests are found in South American jungles and plains and prefer an environment of 23-26C with 85-95% humidity. There are three leafcutter ant genera, the most famous being Atta cephalotes. They are an active species and grow quickly as long as the temperature and humidity are suitable and they have access to leafy materials like privet, soft flowers, bramble, grapes, oats, and fish. As they come from a tropical climate, they do not need to hibernate.
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