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Leafcutter ant

Scientific name: Atta cephalotesLeafcutter ant

Country: Trinidad and Tobago

Continent: North America

Diet: Fungus - fungivore

Food & feeding: Herbivore

Habitats: Tropical rainforest

Conservation status: Not threatened

Relatives: Honeybee, hornet

Description: Leaf-cutter ants have powerful jaws which vibrate a thousand times a second to slice off pieces of leaf. Size for size, their bodies are amazingly powerful, able to carry pieces of leaf that weigh at least 20 times their own body weight - that's the same as a human carrying a one ton load. Like bees, their colonies contain different sorts of workers. Soldier leaf-cutters have huge jaws, strong enough to cut through leather and gardener leaf-cutters work beneath ground and process the pieces of the leaf that the harvesters bring back. The nest also contains a single queen and she lays all the eggs needed to keep the colony supplied with new workers.

Lifestyle: Leaf-cutting ants cannot eat leaves. Instead, they carry the cut pieces back to the nest and use it as compost to cultivate a particular fungus. This fungus cannot survive outside the nest or reproduce without the ants help. Amazingly, if the ants collect plant material that is toxic to the fungus, the fungus seems to release a chemical signal which stops the ants collecting that particular plant material.

Family & friends: There can be three to eight million ants in a single colony, which can measure 15 m across and 5 m deep.

Keeping in touch: The ants forage for leaves some distance from their nest. They find their way home by producing and laying down pheromone (scent) trails as they move away from the nest. These pheromones are so powerful that each ant produces only one billionth of a gram. One gram of this pheromone would easily be enough to make an ant trail all around the world.

 Leaf-cutting ants harvest more greenery in South American forests than any other animal. In fact, within the rain forest, leaf-cutter ants consume almost 20% of the annual vegetation growth! In its lifetime, a colony of these ants may move over 20 tons of soil.

In Bug World at Bristol Zoo Gardens, fresh leaves are regularly provided for the ants to harvest. You can see them cut and carry their piece of leaf to the nest.