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Informative I - A Study of Leafcutting Ants

Leafcutting ants are amongst the most specialised species in the world. They form
complex societies and have an amazing caste of worker ants. The leafcutting ants
originate from the tropics of America and live in the Rainforests. Places such as Trinidad
and Brazil are home to many species of leafcutting ants. There are two main genera of
leafcutting ants, Acromyrmex and Atta. The Acromyrmex genus consists of thirty one
species, one of which is Acromyrmex octospinosus. This is the more common species
which is polygyne which means that they can have multiple Queens in the same colony.
Acromyrmex octospinosus colonies reach approximately 50,000 workers at the peak of
colony growth. Many ant-keepers choose to keep Acromyrmex octospinosus because the
colonies do not grow as big as other leafcutting ant species. Atta cephalotes however
have been known to have 150 million workers of which a maximum recorded figure of 8
million is alive at any time.
Atta cephalotes are a well-known species of ant, because of their distinct characteristics
and wide range of worker castes. They are seen in various countries such as Venezuela
and Brazil. Soldier ants of this species are capable of tearing through human flesh and
causing severe wounds. They have powerful mandibles which are used primarily for
defence. Atta cephalotes feature a distinct, bright colour with many of the larger workers
being dark brown, and the smaller workers being golden brown. The Queen of this
species ranges in size from 25mm to 35mm in length. She can be picked up with human
fingers with ease.
The general misconception about leafcutting ants is that they eat the leaves, this is
untrue. They actually cut the leaves which are mulched and fed to the fungus. They
cultivate the fungus which is used as a food source. The mutual relationship between the
ants and their fungus is quite amazing. The fungus is tended to by the ants and they
keep it free of pests and mould. An antibiotic grows on the ants, which acts as a portable
anti-microbe. The ants have a symbiotic relationship with the fungus and if a certain leaf
type is toxic to the fungus, the ants detect this because the fungus reacts differently to
the leaf material; the ants stop cutting the specific leaf type. This is beneficial to plant
life as they dont deforest a single tree/plant type in one go. For this reason, leafcutting
ants that are kept in captivity are given leaves on a rotation.
When the ants go out to cut leaves they are prone to being infected by a parasite which
lays eggs in the crevices of their heads. To counter this, the minima caste workers hitchhike a ride on the workers head to ward off any parasites that attempt to attack. This
method is generally very efficient; the media workers carrying the leaves are not majorly
affected by the weight of the minima workers.
Once a colony of Atta cephalotes matures, the Queen begins to produce winged alates,
namely winged princesses and winged males. This occurs in summer and the Queen uses
a special technique to produce the males and princesses. Firstly, to produce the males,
the Queen lays unfertilised eggs which are then cared for specially. The Princesses are
produced by laying fertilised eggs and with the influence of pheromones, the egg hatches
into a winged Princess. The Princesses are basically Queens which are incapable of laying
fertilised eggs. On a suitable day, generally the day after heavy rain falls, the alates fly to
meet other colonies of the same species and mate mid-air. The Princesses then become
Queens and fall to the ground. After this process, the Queens disperse on the soft ground
and begin to tunnel into the earth. The success rate of new Atta cephalotes colonies is a
mere 1% due to predation because the Queens have difficulty foraging for leaves without
being attacked or killed.

Many colonies in the area of Trinidad are poisoned by the local farmers, due to them
being an agricultural pest. A mature colony of Atta cephalotes can deforest masses of
land in very little time. They are considered a really damaging pest and they are a
famers worst nightmare. Apart from this fact, leafcutting ants are an extraordinary
species; it is a privilege to witness their activities in the wild.
The leafcutting ants are amazing, from their strength in numbers to their ability to be
farmers and cultivate a unique form of fungus. The colony is like a timepiece, each part
of the clock is essential to the survival of the colony. They are specialist farmers with a
single absolute goal, to survive