Leaf Cutter ant, whose most famous species is Atta cephalotes, is part of the most fascinating creatures of the planet.
Fourmiculture offers you to discover it through this blog, which will allow to develop new knowledge about this extraordinary ant.
Presentation of the blog :
This blog consists in introducing Atta cephalotes leaf-cutter ant keeping. It will be updated regularly with new information about the evolution of our colony, our observations and discoveries.
We start the breeding with a queen, a hundred of workers and a symbiotic fungus.
Thereby, you will be able to observe the developement of this colony and get a better comprehension of its needs and behavior. The breeder is Yvain Samuel, owner of Fourmiculture.
Photos belong to Fourmiculture and can be distributed for non-profit means in exchange of a link to this page.
Presentation of the species :
Leafcutter ants are a group of several species from South America and Southern USA. The most famous are Atta cephalotes and Acromyrmex octospinosus. They are named Leaf cutter ants because many workers cut and harvest plants and leaves that they carry above their heads to bring them back to the nest.
(The following photograph is free of use)
However, these ants cannot feed directly on the leaves. They live in a symbiosis with a fungus which is actually the underground part of mushrooms. It's on this fungus that the ants place the vegetal to feed it and make it grow. Very quickly, the fungus will produce edible filaments that reprent the main food of Atta and Acromyrmex, only completed with sap from the plants they cut. Larvae are also fed with these filaments.
Small workers that we often refer to as "gardeners" are specialized in fungus care. They prune and protect it from other fungus and infections thanks to antibiotics produced by their body and fertilize it with their droppings.
It is a very advanced symbiosis. Ants are not able to live without the fungus because it is their only way to digest vegetal food. And the fungus cannot live more than a few days without the ants.
This micro-agriculture was invented long before us, about 60 million years ago by the ants.
The growth of the fungus depends on the quantity of food and amount of workers to look after it. As a result, the fungus can regulate the population of the colony, but usually, the opposite happens : a small colony isn't able to look after a large fungus and will progressively make it grow with the arrival of new workers.
Breeding of leafcutter ants :
Atta cephalotes and Acromyrmex octospinosus cannot be kept in traditional ant habitats. They need much room to let the fungus grow. This room must be closed but let the oxygen in and CO² out, producted by the fungus. Humidity must also be high.
However, the fungus cannot tolerate air flows and excess of humidity like condensation and direct contact with water.
With these conditions, sometimes in contradiction with each other, it can be difficult to coordinate them. Fortunately, once this done, leafcutter ant breeding turns out to be pretty easy.
Then, a feeding arena connected to the nest allows the ants to harvest food and evacuate wastes. There is no specific conditions to respect for this part like humidity but it can be beneficial to offer the ants a supplementary arena for the wates, with a low humidity, in opposition of the food arena with a medium humidity and the nest with a high humidity.
First part of the blog : Installation of the ants :
July 5th 2012 :
I have received the ants from an experienced breeder. Originally, this leafcutter ant colony comes from South America. They arrived in 2 days in a simple plastic box with the colony, the fungus and leaf pieces.
Here is the equipment that I have prepared :
- 1 big Plexiglas cylinder (20*20cm) with 1 ventilated lid and 2 holes,
- Ventilation musn't be too strong in order to maintain the right humidity. The upper hole is blocked with cotton. It's a good technique to gently ventilate the interior of the nest.
- The bottom of the nest is coverd with clay to retain water and keep the hygrometry the ants need.
- A round plastic box (a petri box) contains the colony. It lives without touching the humid ground and the fungus will be protected from it.
- A hose allows the ants to get outside of the nest and get to the arena which is a large box that will be used to give leaves and evacuate wastes. Walls are covered with talcum to prevent ants from climbing them.
However, the fungus is in pieces and covered with leaf pieces. It doesn't look in shape... Here is the colony placed on its Petry dish, which is placed inside the cylinder :
When observing the colony, one will notice something completely stunning : the size of the queen... It's one of the world's biggest ants, and it's only when seeing it that you realize how impressive it is! Its size is about 3cm long!
So Atta cephalotes has incredible size differences between workers that measure from 3 to 20mm and the queen that measures 30mm...
Acromyrmex have much smaller queens (about 12mm long) and the biggest workers are close to the queen' size.
Here is the queen, head to the bottom of the picture, with a worker on her back!
And here, a pretty big worker with a massive head that contains strong muscles to cut leaves in small pieces. We can see that there is some brood (the white things) and the fungus still appears scattered.
To circulate easily, not to slip and get down the wall easily to reach the feeding arena, a cotton wick has been placed inside the glass tube.
The queen took advantage of it to climb a little!
To be continued : problems with the fungus, feeding and milew... A whole story that makes the Atta keeping dlicate and fascinating!