Why Do Leafcutter Ants Need Fungi?

Leafcutter ants are known for their extreme strength as they can cut, carry, and chop the leaves into fine particles providing a platform for fungal growth.

Why Do Leafcutter Ants Need Fungi? Leafcutter ants need fungi to extract nutrients from the leaves consisting of complex polymers because they cannot digest complex compounds. Moreover, they carry leaves to their nest and build a platform for fungi to grow. This platform can be used for getting nutrition and feeding larvae. Furthermore, they have developed mutualistic associations that benefit each other as the fungus depends on ants for platform organization.

The leafcutter ants are responsible for creating holes in the leaves and disturbing the rainforest ecosystem by affecting the trees and contaminating the environment with fungus.

What is the relationship between fungi and leafcutter ants?

Leafcutter ants and fungi have developed a closed association as they are in symbiotic relationships with each other.

Moreover, they mutually benefit one another by fulfilling their requirements. They get nutrition from it in a digestible form as they cannot extract nutrients.  

These insects provide a suitable platform for their growth and maintain proper conditions for the white outgrowth to cover the area.

Furthermore, fungal gardens form due to mutualism ensuring their survival and helping them grow well under ideal conditions.

What are the reasons that leaf cutter ants need fungi? 

The leafcutters ants depend on fungi for nutrition as they cannot consume complex polymers in the leaves.

Moreover, their digestive system cannot break down complex compounds like pectin, so they need fungus to degrade the leaf components to make them digestible.

They extract nutrients from the fungal gardens to fulfill the dietary intake value of their body, which provides energy for performing the tasks.

Additionally, they use simplified compounds to feed their larvae that are in their growing stage and need food to build their systems.

How do leafcutter ants farm fungi?

They farm fungi due to their special relationship, as both depend on each other for survival.

They can’t get nutrients and a platform for proper growth without any support.

Selection of food source

One of the leafcutter ants examines the location and locates for a good source of food that provides plenty of food like leaves. Then, it sends a signal to other members for the collection process.

They keep searching for healthy plants in their territory and move to far areas for this purpose. They prefer plants with fresh leaves and abundant moisture content that helps fungus grow.

Moreover, blackberries, grasses, plum trees, and other ornamental plants are selected for collecting leaves and using them to build a viable platform.

Release chemical 

They release chemicals from their sacs present inside a poison gland that performs multiple functions.

These chemicals act as recruitment signals that attract other nest fellows from a colony to come and collect food. The potential of signals depends on the food quality and the number of leaves required.

Additionally, it plays a role in maintaining a foraging trail to the food that helps them return to their source when they are interested in collecting more leaves.

This signal is a long-lasting cue for these tiny insects that can forget their way without a scent trail. In addition, they usually stridulate or rub bodies to make a sound that can act as a recruitment signal.

Cutting of leaves

They use powerful jaws and strong teeth to cut off a fragment from the whole leaf.

Moreover, they are also known as chewing ants as they bite on a particular section of the leaf and remove it from the whole structure.

In addition, their legs help them chop down the leaves into smaller fragments that are easier to carry as their teeth can handle a weight up to a limited extent.

They have saw-like teeth that work continuously and cut semi-circular portions of the leaves. They are known as leafcutters or cut ants due to their extraordinary leaf-cutting behavior.

Transfer of leaves

They can take the leaves by keeping them inside a mouth, as their teeth can help maintain a firm grip over the leaf fragment. They have strong mandibles, and they use them for this purpose.

In addition, they need protection from their fellow ants when they are returning from the forest towards a nest, as there is a risk of attack from predators.

They have strong legs that can carry a heavy load of semi-circular fragments as their weight is equal to 550 to 600 pounds weight for humans.

A minim worker joins an ant-carrying load and rides over the fragment to keep an eye on the attackers like phorid flies.

In addition, these minim workers inspect the leaves’ conditions and clean them properly to avoid the risk of entry of harmful bacteria and fungi into their nest.

Build platform

They have to build a platform for developing a fungal garden by accumulating leaf cuttings at a single location meant for their propagation.

Each colony has the potential to manage the cultivation of 3 to 5 gardens at a time as they are massive colonies that can maintain a supply of leaves.

The cuttings act as a fertilizer promoting the growth of white fungus, particularly Lepiotaceae, as each ant species needs a specific type for its development.

These gardens are continuously cultivated with additions of fresh cuttings and protected from the attack of pests that can be deadly to their cultivation.

Additionally, the workers chew the leaves with their teeth and chop them down with their legs to form a pulpy material providing a suitable platform for it to grow.

What type of leaves do leafcutter ants eat? 

The leafcutter ants consume specific types of leaves that are fresh and non-toxic for fungal growth. In addition, the fresh leaves provide an appropriate moisture content for their growth.

Moreover, they can cut leaves from various plants, including peach or plum trees and fruit trees loaded with fruits.

The ornamental plants can also provide healthy leaves to these insects to promote the growth of fungus and maintain a nutritious source.

Additionally, blackberry bushes and forage crops are also prone to attack, in addition to weeds affected by this species of insects in Texas.

They do not directly eat leaf fragments as they cannot extract nutrients by themselves. Such gardens are built under the ground where they have formed nests.

So, they allow the fungus to grow on the platform of these chunks of leaves, then eat broken compounds and feed them to larvae.

Do leafcutter ants get fungal infections?

Leafcutter ants try to keep the fungal garden free of pests and avoid infections as it can not only affect the fungal growth but also put their life at risk.

They excrete liquids of antibacterial nature to avoid the risk of bacterial infection in the garden built by them.

They usually clean the leaf surfaces by removing dirt and debris before transferring them to the nest.

They can also protect themselves from infections as they have plate-like crystals on their bodies that are part of the exoskeleton and improve its hardness.

The such hard covering protects their limbs during battles for territory survival and fungal infections as they live within the designed garden and can get infected.