Animalia (animals)
Phylum (Arthopoda)
Subphylum: Hexapoda
Class: Insecta
• Three body parts – head, thorax, abdomen
• Three pairs of legs attached to thorax
• Usually one or two pairs of wings
Order: Hymenoptera (ants)
Family: Formicidae

Genus/species: Atta cephalotes


GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS: Rust colored with lighter colored legs, members of the genus Atta are among the largest, most socially complex leafcutters. The huge queen is up to 1.5 cm (0.5 inches) in length, an egg laying machine capable of building a colony of several million individuals. A. cephalotes is noted for its especially large head (hence the name). Workers take many forms and sizes, from large soldiers and major workers with their impressive mandibles. A soldier may be 10 times longer and weigh several hundred times more than the smallest worker.

DISTRIBUTION/HABITAT: Fungus growing ants, or gardening ants, number about 200 species, all in the tribe Attini, and are found only in the New World, in every mainland country except Canada and Chile. Most leaf cutter ant species are native to tropical Central and South America, though a few species occur in the southwestern United States. Atta cephalotes ranges from southern Mexico to Bolivia and Brazil.

Found throughout the tropical rain forest, tropical deciduous forest, and tropical scrub forest. Nests are underground to a depth of 6 m (20 ft). Some have up to 3000 chambers.


DIET IN THE WILD: They grow their own food by cutting leaves, mostly during the evening and nighttime, and carrying them back to the nest, where smaller workers then process them further and take them to underground “garden” chambers. All along the way, the leaves are fertilized by their handlers with anal secretions. Fungi then grow on the decaying vegetation, and the ants feed exclusively on the fungus, not the leaves. Each ant species grows a specific fungus.

REPRODUCTION: A. cephalotes swarm in mating flights at the onset of the rainy season. The queen mates with multiple males. The founding female has a pocket in her mouth cavity for storage of fungus spores to start her new nest. After she digs the first chamber for the garden, she deposits the spores, gathers appropriate leaves, and begins laying about 1,000 eggs each day. The first group of workers to develop takes over for the queen in caring for eggs, larvae, and pupae. The queen has only one job then—to lay the eggs that will build the colony.
The queen lives up to 10 years on average, but some have lived up to 14 years.

REMARKS: Fungus and ants are mutually dependent for survival. Obviously, the fungus provides the ants with food, but equally important, the fungus receives a warm, moist home and is supplied with fresh, fertilized nutrients. A large colony harvests the same amount of plant material that a cow consumes in a single day. Like most insects, are a good source of protein; they are eaten by people in parts of Mexico and in many places in South America. They also circulate nutrients and aerate huge quantities of soil.

Negative impacts of A. cephalotes include undermining building foundations, causing structural damage and destroying crops.



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