Leaf cutter ants are amongst the most charismatic the insect species. We enjoy watching lock parade by with leaves hosted like parasols together they overcome the jungle floor in the tropical rainforests of central and south America. Not just do they have actually a festive appearance, they feature some impressive adaptations.

You are watching: The leaf-cutter ants do not feed on leaves.

Leaf cutter ants space the initial farmers, harvesting crops of edible fungus that they cultivate on sheet fragments. They have actually jaws that room highly adapted to cutting vegetation with large razor-like mandibles that they can vibrate approximately a thousands times per second. They routinely carry leaf cuttings that are 20-50 times their body weight.There space over 40 types of leaf cutter ants in the world. They cut leaves into controllable pieces through their big jaws and carry the pieces earlier to their nest. That is funny to watch these liven ants hurry along in lengthy processions carrying oversize sheet fragments. These lines deserve to reach approximately 100 feet or 30 meters. Some researchers calculation that sheet cutter ants are responsible because that decomposing 15-20% the all pipeline in south America.Leaf cutter ant parade, Butterfly Gardens, Victoria, BC Canada. Video clip by G. Sranko

Highly efficient mandibles because that cutting leaves

Workers the A. Colombica cutting leaves from a young tree. Photo: Christian R. Linder – Barro Colorado Island, Panama (1999) CC BY-SA 3.0Leaf cutter ants require fresh vegetation – not for food – but for cultivation the symbiotic Lepiotaceae fungi the they feed your larvae. They harvest the vegetation by chopping leaves, stems and flowers into fragments with their big jaws and then transporting the clippings back to the nest.In the procedure of cut leaves, the ants use highly reliable razor-like mandibles that vibrate at high-frequency, as much as 1,000 times every second.  The vibrations, produced using a dedicated organ located on the gaster, appear to stiffen the product for a smoother cut. V natural an option over millions of years, the ants have developed mandibles that occupational like high frequency jigsaws an unified with razor sharp tin snips.While cut leaves, the adult ants feed on the sap because that nourishment and energy.Dr Robert Schofield, through the college of Oregon, has some amazing videos that show the mandibles of sheet cutter ants in action.  Here’s among his videos showing the mandibles cutting v leaf material, taken native below.

What happens as soon as razor-sharp mandibles stay out?

Dr. Schofield and also his colleagues have additionally discovered the the cutting mandibles ultimately wear out, forcing the ants to switch jobs. when the mandibles come to be dull, the takes the ants twice as lengthy to reduced through leaves while expending double as lot energy. Ultimately they switch work from cutting leaves to transferring leaves. Not basic switch as soon as you think that the loads these ants on regular basis carry!The photos listed below show both pristine and also highly worn mandibles that one varieties of leaf cutter ant, A. Cephalotes. The university of Oregon researchers discovered a “V-blade” between the first and second teeth the may help in cut through hard leaf veins. Electron microscopic lense images display a tongue radius of around 50 nm or the sharpness the a new razor blade.

Micrographs to compare pristine and also worn mandibles of sheet cutter ants. Image from Schofield et al. 2011Video of ant v worn mandibles having difficulty cutting a leaf

Leaf cuttings are carefully included to the farm

Once the clippings arrive at the nest, ants lick every surface. The is assumed that they room decontaminating the leaves and also removing any potential rivals of the cultivated fungus. Once cleaned, the ants cut, crush, and puncture the leaves and even discharge fecal liquids to break them under into perfect pieces for their fungus farms.  ~ processing, the ants very closely maneuver each item tightly into place.Video of sheet processing

Fungus growers par excellence

The next step after handling the leaf fragments is to inoculate each piece with the edible fungus. This entails transferring bits of mature fungus onto brand-new leaf fragments to spread out the fungus. Once developed the fungus is very closely tended until harvest time. Like all good farmers, leaf-cutter ants defend the crops from pests and mold and also make particular to control any type of competing fungi the might shot to develop in the fungus farm.The edible fungus the ants cultivate on their leaf clippings is the main resource of food for the ant larvae. Adults feed on the sap native the leaf cuttings. Each species of ant grows a particular varieties of fungus that have the right to only be found in your colonies and also nowhere else.

Leaf Cutter ant colonies can acquire huge

Leaf cutter ant swarms can have actually up come 10 million residents with countless tunnels and chambers for fungus gardens, nurseries, garbage heaps, and other uses.Next to human society, leafcutter ants are taken into consideration to have actually one that the most complicated societies on earth.

Caste device keeps every ant in line

In a tires leafcutter colony, different sized ants have various jobs and also are split into castes. Every caste has a certain function, through some amazing behaviours.The smallest ants, because that example, the minims, will certainly ride follow me on reduced sections of leaf while they space carried ago to the nest by the media workers. While hitchhiking, the minims will protect the pipeline from helminth flies and wasps, and work come decontaminate every fragment before it come at the nest, while feeding ~ above the sap that the leaf. As soon as the media ants room out cutting and also collecting leaves, they space at risk of strike by some types of phorid flies, parasitoids that lay eggs into the crevices of the worker ants’ heads. Often, a minim will certainly sit on a worker ant come ward off any attack.Minims are the smallest workers and also tend to the larvae or care for the fungus gardens. They room sometimes dubbed tiny protectors, since they defend the leaves and other workers from parasitic flies and wasps.Minors are slightly larger than minima workers and also are existing in huge numbers in and also around foraging columns. This ants are on patrol and will intensely attack any kind of enemies the threaten the foraging lines.Mediae are generalised foragers, cutting leaves, and also carrying the leaf fragments back to the nest.Majors, the biggest workers, act as soldiers, defending the swarm from intruders. Lock can also take advantage of your body size by clearing trails of large debris and carrying bulky items ago to the nest.
Leaf cutter ants Atta cephalotes. Big ones at optimal are emperors (rightmost: winged form), others space workers and also soldiers. Picture by Sarefo ~ above Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Dump workers room indispensable… yet ostracized

The intake workers room older and less valued 보다 the healthier, younger ants that work-related on the fungal garden. There room two varieties of recording workers: garbage transporters and heap workers. The waste transporters take supplied substrate, discarded fungus, and also dead ants come the waste heap. Heap workers dig in and organise the waste, shuffling it around to rate decomposition.The remainder of the colony avoid connecting with recording workers.  Hart and also Ratnieks (2001) proved that in laboratory colonies of Atta cephalotes, heap employees were subject to heightened aggression from nest mates. The researcher proposed that this aggressive solution to waste-contaminated ants helps prevent waste workers from leave the heap and thereby contaminating the fungus gardens.

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Division of labor

In one more fascinating study, Hart and Ratnieks (2002) marked 2,700 rubbish transporter ants; 200 or 7.4% ended up being heap workers. None became foragers. Just two the 5,200 marked foragers later operated at rubbish disposal, both coming to be heap workers. None of the 76 significant heap workers switched work to become transporters, and also 21 to be dead top top the heap within 2 days. Some would take into consideration that a dead-end job!Excellent overview video of leaf cutter ants

Fast Facts

Leaf cutter ants don’t eat the leaves. Instead, they usage the leaf cuttings to maintain fungal growth in their nests, providing food for the ant larvae.The ants cut the leaves with razor-sharp mandibles that have the right to vibrate up to 1,000 times per secondAnts have a selection of work in the nest, indigenous foragers that collect the leaves, come guards, soldiers, and also dump workers. Minims space tiny protectors that safeguard the leaves and also other workers from parasitic flies and wasps.Minims deserve to hitchhike on cut leaves being brought by foragers and can additionally ride top top the bigger workers.Most sheet cutter ants are infertile female workers.Workers can vary in size; smaller sized ones work-related in the fungal garden, bigger ones forage because that leaves and also the largest guard the lines of foragers.Lines of foragers deserve to reach approximately 100 feet or 30 meters. Leaf cutter ants room responsible for decomposing approximately 15-20% of leaves in their house range.Leaf cutter ants can lug pieces in their jaws that space 20 to 50 times heavier than they are!

Bonus – Zombie ants!

Leaf-cutter ants have the right to have a nasty enemy to contend with; a deadly infectious fungus referred to as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. If a spore native this nasty fungus lands on an regrettably ant and takes hold, that will rotate the ant into a walking zombie! The fungus takes control and forces the ant come walk to an optimal spot in the woodland – optimal for the fungus, that is! how the fungus controls ant behavior remains unknown. Once the ant will its destination, it bites into a leaf vein in a ‘death grip.’ once the ant dies, its body continues to be in place so the fungus can thrive without disturbance. The fruiting body will burst with the ant’s skull choose a mushroom to release its spores into the forest, to produce even more zombies. Creepy, right?!! Luckily because that the ants, only about 6-7% of fruiting bodies develop viable spores.
Dead zombie ant eliminated by a fungal parasite. The fungal growth and also fruiting body deserve to be seen projecting from the ant’s head. Picture by David P. Hughes


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