Leafcutter Ant Atta sexdens

Physical characteristics: The bodies of larger workers and soldiers measure 0.43 to 0.47 inches (11 to 12 millimeters) in length. The surfaces of their reddish bodies are rough in texture. The back of the thorax has three pairs of spines. Males and queens have wings, but all workers and soldiers are wingless. There are three distinct classes of workers based on size.

Geographic range: This species is found in Central and South America, including Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Guiana, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.

Leaf-cutter ants are social insects that live in large underground colonies. (Illustration by Joseph E. Trumpey. Reproduced by permission.)

Habitat: Ant colonies are found on the floor of rainforests, tropical deciduous forests, and tropical scrub forests.

Diet: Both adults and larvae of leaf-cutter ants eat a special fungus that is grown by the workers.

Behavior and reproduction: Leaf-cutter ants are social insects that live in large underground colonies. Workers use their sharp jaws to cut sections of many kinds of green leaves and carry them back to the nest. The leaves are chewed up to form compost for growing a species of fungus for food. Depending on their size, workers perform various tasks, including caring for the larvae, expanding the nest, cutting leaves, and defending the nest. The fungus gardens are located in underground chambers just beneath the surface. There are also special chambers for waste and unused plant materials. Each nest has tunnels leading to the surface that help to keep the air below cool and fresh.

New queens leave their colonies to fly into the air and mate with as many as eight males. From these matings she will begin a new colony, laying up to 150 million eggs in ten or more years. Leaf-cutters do not replace their queens, and the colony will survive only as long as she lives.

Leaf-cutter ants and people: Leaf-cutter ants are sometimes considered serious pests because they attack crops. Because mature colonies contain millions of individuals, they dominate the habitats where they occur. These ants are eaten by people in parts of Mexico.

Conservation status: This species is not considered endangered or threatened. ■

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