A leaf-cutter ant


A leaf-cutter ant

Atta cephalotes

Trinidad

Z.2008.44.13

Leaf-cutter ants can carry bits of plants more than 20 times their own weight. This is like an man carrying a caravan.

Where can you see them? The tropical rainforest of Central and South America and the Caribbean. You will see huge processions of them carrying huge bits of leaf, flower, stems or seeds back to their enormous underground nests.

What do they eat? Despite their tiny size, they take more plant matter than any other animal species. They need a lot of food with up to 4 or 5 million hungry ants to feed in a single nest. Up to 20% of the rainforests yearly plant growth around their nests is collected by the ants. They can feed on over half the different types of plants that grow in the rainforest. They don’t actually eat the plants.  They process the pieces of plant in a special way to grow a type of fungus, which they eat. The fungus can’t grow without the help of the ants and the ant colony needs the fungus.

Why are they important? Leaf-cutter ants play an important role in trimming vegetation, stimulating new plant growth each year, breaking down plant materials and adding nutrients to the soil to help fuel the rainforest’s new growth.

Are they threatened? There is some evidence that in parts of their range there may be less leaf-cutter ants due to increasing changes in land-use and forest fragmentation. In some areas they are regarded as pests.

More images and video of leaf cutting ants: