Geographical Range Southwestern United States to South America
Habitat Tropical and deciduous forests, scrublands
Scientific Name Atta spp.
Conservation Status Common

Mounds of soil on the forest floor mark the entrances to the nests of leaf cutter ants. These industrious little ants use their sharp jaws to snip off pieces of leaves, then they carry them high over their heads back to their nest. (A large colony of ants can strip a tree of leaves in just one night!)

Fungus Farmers

The ants don't actually eat the leaves they snip. Instead, they use them to create "fungus gardens" in their underground nests. The gardens are a source of food for a leaf cutter ant colony; the fungus from the leaves produces an orange food body, which is what the ants actually eat. Adults also feed on nectar. They feed their young (grubs) animal matter, usually other invertebrates.

Leaf cutter colonies contain various different castes (groups) of ants. Each caste carries out tasks that are essential to the colony's survival and growth:

Queen

This is the founder of the colony. She carries a tiny piece of fungus from her previous colony to start a new fungus garden. Once her new colony is established, her only job is to lay eggs. She then becomes the mother of every new ant in the colony.

Workers

These are sterile females, divided into three sizes and "job" classifications:

  • Small workers stay inside the nest to tend the fungus gardens and care for larvae. They also "prune" the fungus by eating the food bodies, keeping mushrooms from sprouting;
  • Medium-sized workers stay mainly above ground, cutting and carrying leaves and other nest material. They're sometimes called "parasol" ants since they carry their leaf pieces over their head;
  • Large workers patrol the colony, on the lookout for enemies.

Fertile Females

When a colony is ready to expand into new colonies, the queen lays special eggs that become fertile females and males. These winged ants then fly away to mate and start new colonies. The females then lose their wings after mating.

Males

A leaf cutter ant colony contains male ants only when it is ready to expand into new colonies. The winged males fly away with the fertile females. The males die soon after mating, having done their part to start a new ant colony.