A pair of leafcutter ants carrying a piece of leaf.

Leafcutter Ants

Fungus farmers

Type

butterfly

Arthropods

Area

South America

South America

Endangered Status

Stable

facts

size
.25 inch
media ant
An eraser on a pencil is about .25 inches long.
Leafcutter ant atop a pencil eraser.
food
plants
fungus
Herbivore
herbivore

Leafcutter ants use bits of leaves to grow the fungus they eat.

habitat
rain forest
Central and South America
Rainforest leaves

description

Leafcutter ants dismantling a leaf.

description

Piece by piece

What do leafcutter ants do with all those pieces of leaves they bite off of trees? They plant them! These tiny mighty movers eat a very special kind of fungus. They grow the fungus in special sections of their underground nests. The fungus needs decaying plant material to grow, so down those leaf bits go!

Maxima leafcutter ant communicating with media ant.

Size matters

Working on the fungus farm is a team effort. There are three sizes of ants on a leafcutter team: maxima are the largest, minima are the smallest, and media ants fall in between. Each size of ant has a specific job to do. Maxima ants do the exploring to find vegetation. Then media worker ants use their powerful mandibles to cut pieces off the leaf and drop them to the ground. More media ants pick up the pieces and carry them to the nest.

Leafcutter ants crawling around their fungus farm.

Down on the farm

Back underground, the minima workers take over. They chew the leaf fragments and shape them into pellets. The pellets are placed in a mat of fungus, which continues to grow as it feeds on the decaying leaf pellets. The minima ants tend the fungus carefully and keep it healthy. When it's time to eat, fungus is harvested from an older spot.

Leafcutter ants working together.

Teamwork!

Leafcutter ants work together in many other ways, too. Ants release scents, called pheromones, from glands on their body. Each pheromone is a special scent message that is picked up through the antennae of the other ants. Ants use scents to learn where to harvest leaves, when and where a dead colony mate needs to be moved, and there's even an alarm scent that rallies the colony to fight intruders. Like all ants, leafcutter ants may be small, but they have a big, busy world of their own!