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Leafcutter ants are species of ants that are fungus farmers -- they cultivate (grow) their own food, a type of fungus, in underground gardens.
Leafcutter ants travel in long lines far into the forest, in search of leaves; they leave a scent along the trail so they can find their way back home. They use their sharp mandibles (jaws) to cut leaves from plants, and then carry the large pieces of leaves over their back. A leafcutter ant can carry almost ten times its own weight - that is like a 200-pound adult weightlifter carrying a 2,000-pound car up in the air. The leafcutter ants carry the leaf pieces back to their underground nests where the leaves are chewed into a pulp. The decaying pulp is stored with ant feces and fungus spores, and strands of fungus eventually grow on the decomposing pulp. This fungus is the crop that these ants eat; the ants do not eat the leaves.
Habitat and Range: Leafcutter ants live in tropical rainforests and semi-tropical forests of Central and South America, and in parts of southern North America.
These common social insects live in huge underground colonies (large groups of related ants) of up to many millions of ants. Each colony consists of:
- Queen - The queen begins her life with wings, which she uses while mating. After mating with a male ant (or many males), she flies to her nesting area. She then loses her wings and spends her life laying eggs. When the queen flies away to start a new colony, she carries some of the fungus in her mouth to start a fungus garden in the new colony.
- Workers - Workers are the many sterile (non-reproducing), wingless female worker ants who are the daughters of the queen. The smallest workers tend the eggs, grow fungus, and feed members of the colony. Larger workers go out to collect leaves. Most of the ants in a colony are workers.
- Soldiers - Soldiers are large workers (sterile females) who defend the colony and defend the lines of ants that are collecting leaves.
- Males - The males are small and have wings. They fly from the colony to mate with a queen. They die soon afterwards.
Anatomy: Ants, like all insects, have jointed legs, three body parts (the head, thorax and abdomen), a pair of antennae, and a hard exoskeleton. The exoskeleton is made up of a material that is very similar to our fingernails.
Leafcutters are large ants that have long legs. The worker leafcutter ant ranges from about .1 to .5 inch long. The males are .5 inch long. The queen may be over 1 inch long. Leafcutter ants range in color from orange to brown to red to black.
Life Cycle: The life cycle of the ant consists of four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Fertilized eggs produce female ants (queens, workers, or soldiers); unfertilized eggs produce male ants.
Classification: Class Insecta (insects), Order Hymenoptera (ants and wasps - insects with a waist), Family Formicidae (all ants), Tribe Attini (leafcutter ants), about 39 species.
- Egg: Ant eggs are oval shaped and tiny (they are on the order of 1 mm long, but the queen's egg is many times larger).
- Larva: The worm-like larvae have no eyes and no legs. The larvae molt (shed their skin) many times as they increase in size.
- Pupa: After reaching a certain size, the larva spins a silk-like cocoon around itself (against a solid object, like the wall of the chamber) and pupates. During this time the body metamorphoses (changes) into its adult form.
- Adult: The pupa emerges as an adult. The entire life cycle usually lasts from 6 to 10 weeks.
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