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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.
The Colony: 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:
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.
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