Atta (ant)

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Queen of A. colombica
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Formicidae
Subfamily: Myrmicinae
Tribe: Attini
Genus: Atta
Fabricius, 1805
Type species
Atta cephalotes
17 species
  • Archeatta Gonçalves, 1942
  • Epiatta Borgmeier, 1950
  • Neoatta Gonçalves, 1942
  • Oecodoma Latreille, 1818
  • Palaeatta Borgmeier, 1950

Atta is a genus of New World ants of the subfamily Myrmicinae. It contains at least 17 known species.

Atta leaf-cutter ants are relatively large, rusty red or brown in colour, and have a spiny body and long legs. The three main castes within a nest are the queen, worker, and soldier.[2] Only the queens and males have wings (alate), and these ants are also known as reproductives or swarmers. Although most of the ants in the nest are female, only the queens produce eggs. Queens are usually over 20 millimetres (2532 in) long.[citation needed]


Ants of the genus Atta are leafcutter ants that comprise one of the two genera of leafcutting ants within the tribe Attini, along with Acromyrmex. They have no sting, thus inject no venom,[3] although they are known as strong biters.

Atta spp. exhibit a high degree of polymorphism, with four castes being present in established colonies: minims (or garden ants), minors, mediae, and majors (also called soldiers or dinergates).[citation needed] Their immature development undergoes four larval stages, regardless of the ultimate caste, wherein larvae are also associated with fungal hyphae.[4]

Workers of A. colombica cutting all the leaves from a young tree

The high degree of polymorphism in this genus is also suggestive of its high degree of advancement. Every caste has a specific function, and some remarkably advanced phenomena have been observed in Atta species. An example of such is the behaviour of the minim ants, which climb on the cut sections of leaf while they are carried back to the nest by the media workers to protect the latter from a particular species of phorid fly that parasitises the leaf-carrying caste. While hitchhiking, the minims also work to decontaminate the fragment before it arrives at the nest, and feed on the sap of the leaf.[5] The minims behaving this way demonstrates the highly derived character of the species.

A. cephalotes, Wilhelma Zoo, Stuttgart

Like Acromyrmex, Atta spp. subsist mostly on a particular species of fungus that they cultivate on a medium of masticated leaf tissue. This is the sole food of the queen and other colony members that remain in the nest. The media workers also gain subsistence from plant sap they ingest while physically cutting out sections of leaf from a variety of plants.[6]

Before leaving their parent colonies, winged females carry a small section of fungus in their intrabuccal pocket, and with this, the subsequently wingless queens seed the fungus gardens of incipient colonies. The queen does not eat from the fungus initially; she gives it time to grow by fertilizing it with her fecal matter. She survives on her fat body reserves, eating 90% of the eggs she lays, and catabolizing her wing muscles.[7] Swanson et al 2019 finds annual turnover of Atta nest sites to be between 11–27%.[8]

Atta spp. have evolved to change food plants constantly, preventing a colony from completely stripping off leaves and thereby killing trees, thus avoiding negative biological feedback on account of their sheer numbers.[citation needed] This does not diminish the huge quantities of foliage they harvest; Atta is estimated to be responsible for the decomposition of 20% of all leaves in South America.[citation needed] Consequently, the genus is considered a major agricultural pest species in areas where its range coincides with farming activity.[9][10]

Workers of the genus have few cuticular bacteria.[11]


The leafcutter ants (Atta and Acromyrmex) are different from other ants by their underground fungi cultivation; the two genera split off from a common ancestor species about 10 million years ago (Mya). The Trachymyrmex group and Sericomyrmex are the closest relatives to the leafcutters; they split off about 17 Mya.[7] Leafcutter ants are very specialized organisms in that they coevolved with another organism through symbiosis. This process took millions of years to occur, about 50 Mya, which is when these ants began their relationship with fungi.[12] The fungus eventually lost the ability to produce spores and the ants capitalized on that by making the fungus its main food source. About 66 Mya, South America was isolated from other land masses, and this is when gardening ants started their relationship with a fungus.[12] Leafcutter ants are thought to have propagated the same fungal lineage for 25 million years, which means they caused the fungus to reproduce.[12]

Ecological effects[edit]

Leafcutter ants can create bottom-up gaps by forming their large nests. The ants excavate soil rich in organic matter, and store additional organic matter in their underground chambers. This creates rich soils that promote plant growth. The ants can also trim the leaves of plants in the understory, allowing for more light to hit the forest floor. They can also control the types of trees and other plants by selectively bringing seeds into the underground chambers. Depending on the location of the chamber, a seed can grow by reaching light.[13]



As food[edit]

Atta queens ("Chicatanas") for sale in Oaxaca, Mexico

Atta species are a popular ingredient in Mexican cuisine, particularly in the southern states such as Chiapas, Guerrero, Hidalgo, Puebla, Veracruz, and Oaxaca.[14] It is considered a delicacy, as well as a food of high protein content, so is often served as a main dish, not as garnish, despite its small portions. They may be eaten as the sole filling in tacos. Atta, the type of ant most eaten in Mexico, has a nutty flavor.[citation needed]

Also in Brazil, the queens of leafcutter ants (locally known as tanajuras) are highly appreciated as delicacies in several regions.[15] The techniques involving their capture and cooking are considered an immaterial patrimony of the people of the Tianguá municipality, in Ceará.

Atta spp. are also eaten by the Guanes tribe.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bolton, B. (2014). "Atta". AntCat. Retrieved 20 July 2014.
  2. ^ "Natural History Museum". Archived from the original on 6 October 2011. Retrieved 2 February 2015.
  3. ^ Touchard, Axel; Aili, Samira; Fox, Eduardo; Escoubas, Pierre; Orivel, Jérôme; Nicholson, Graham; Dejean, Alain (2016-01-20). "The Biochemical Toxin Arsenal from Ant Venoms". Toxins. 8 (1): 30. doi:10.3390/toxins8010030. ISSN 2072-6651. PMC 4728552. PMID 26805882.
  4. ^ Solis, Daniel Russ; Fox, Eduardo Gonçalves Paterson; Ceccato, Marcela; Reiss, Itamar Cristina; Décio, Pâmela; Lorenzon, Natalia; Da Silva, Natiele Gonçalves; Bueno, Odair Correa (August 2012). "On the morphology of the worker immatures of the leafcutter ant Atta sexdens linnaeus (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)". Microscopy Research and Technique. 75 (8): 1059–1065. doi:10.1002/jemt.22031. PMID 22419653. S2CID 19394912.
  5. ^ Vieira-Neto, E. H. M.; F. M. Mundim; H. L. Vasconcelos (2006). "Hitchhiking behaviour in leafcutter ants: An experimental evaluation of three hypotheses". Insectes Sociaux. 53 (3): 326–332. doi:10.1007/s00040-006-0876-7. S2CID 40707063.
  6. ^ Littledyke, M.; J. M. Cherrett (1976). "Direct ingestion of plant sap from cut leaves by leafcutting ants Atta cephalotes (L.) and Acromyrmex octospinosus". Bulletin of Entomological Research. 66 (2): 205–217. doi:10.1017/s0007485300006647.
  7. ^ a b The Leafcutter Ants. Bert Holldobler. Edward O. Wilson. 2011. pp. 26, 39, 42.
  8. ^ Viles, Heather A.; Goudie, Andrew S.; Goudie, Alice M. (2021). "Ants as geomorphological agents: A global assessment". Earth-Science Reviews. Elsevier. 213: 103469. doi:10.1016/j.earscirev.2020.103469. ISSN 0012-8252. S2CID 230554084.
  9. ^ "Texas Leaf Cutting Ant, Atta texana". Urban and Structural Entomology Program at Texas A&M University. 2013-12-05. Retrieved 2022-01-19.
  10. ^ Della Lucia, Terezinha MC; Gandra, Lailla C; Guedes, Raul NC (2013-10-30). "Managing leaf-cutting ants: peculiarities, trends and challenges". Pest Management Science. Society of Chemical Industry (Wiley). 70 (1): 14–23. doi:10.1002/ps.3660. ISSN 1526-498X. PMID 24115496.
  11. ^ Birer, Caroline; Tysklind, Niklas; Zinger, Lucie; Duplais, Christophe (November 2017). "Comparative analysis of DNA extraction methods to study the body surface microbiota of insects: A case study with ant cuticular bacteria". Molecular Ecology Resources. 17 (6): e34–e45. doi:10.1111/1755-0998.12688. ISSN 1755-0998. PMID 28477337. S2CID 38327541.
  12. ^ a b c Hoyt, Erich. 1996. The Earth Dwellers. Simon & Schuster. New York.
  13. ^ Farji-Brener; Illes (May 2000). "Do leaf-cutting ant nests make "bottom-up" gaps in neotropical rain forests?: a critical review of the evidence". Ecology Letters. 3 (3): 219–227. doi:10.1046/j.1461-0248.2000.00134.x. ISSN 1461-023X.
  14. ^ "Chicatanas: A delicacy from Oaxaca". El Universal (in Spanish). 2017-08-08. Retrieved 2020-04-15.
  15. ^ Malvina (2015-01-06). "Tanajura Time: A Brazilian Tradition". Youshare Project. Retrieved 2019-06-24.

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