Fungus-growing ants

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Formicidae - Atta mexicana-3.JPG
Atta mexicana workers carrying a leaf section
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Euarthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Formicidae
Subfamily: Myrmicinae
Tribe: Attini
Smith, 1858
Type genus
Fabricius, 1804

See text

46 genera

Fungus-growing ants (subtribe Attina) comprise all the known fungus-growing ant species participating in ant-fungus mutualism. They are the sister group to the subtribe Dacetina.[2] Leafcutter ants, including Atta and Acromyrmex, make up two of the genera.[3] Their cultivars come from the fungal tribe Leucocoprineae[2] of family Agaricaceae.

This New World ant clade is thought to have originated about 60 million years ago in the South American rainforest.[2] This is disputed, though, as it appears that they likely evolved in a drier habitat while still learning to domesticate their crops.[2] While the fungal cultivars of the 'lower' attine ants can survive outside an ant colony, those of 'higher' attine ants are obligate mutualists. This obligate mutualism is thought to have evolved outside the rainforest, in areas where the fungi would not have been able to survive outside a colony anyway due to the dry environment.[2]


Early ancestors of Attine ants were probably insect predators. Eventually, they likely began foraging for leaf sections, but then converted their primary food source to the fungus these leaf cuts grew.[4][5][6] Higher attines, like Acromyrmex and Atta evolved in Central and Northern America about 20 MYA, starting with Trachymyrmex cornetzi.[2]

Generalized fungus farming in ants appears to have evolved about 55-60 million years ago, but early 25 MYA ants seemed to have domesticated a single fungal lineage with gongylidia to feed colonies. This evolution of using gongylidia appears to have developed in the dry habitats of South America, away from the rainforests where fungus-farming evolved. About 10 million years later, leaf-cutting ants likely arose as active herbivores and began industrial-scaled farming.[7][8][9][10][4][11][12] The fungus the ants grew, their cultivars, eventually became reproductively isolated, and co-evolved with the ants. These fungi gradually began decomposing more nutritious material - fresh plants.[13][7][10][4][11]

Shortly after Attine ants began keeping their fungus gardens in dense aggregations, their farms began suffering from a specialized genus of Escovopsis mycopathogens.[14][15][16][8][17] The ants evolved cuticular cultures of Actinobacteria that suppress Escovopsis and possibly other bacteria.[18][19][8][20][21][22] These cuticular cultures are antibiotics and antifungals.[19][23][24][22][25] The mature worker ants wear these cultures on their chest plates and sometimes on their surrounding thorax and legs as a biofilm.[8]

Impact of farming[edit]

The scale of the farming done by fungus-farming ants can be compared to human's industrialized farming.[26][27][10][4] The cutting of leaves to grow fungus to feed millions of ants per colony has a large ecological impact in the subtropical areas in which they reside.[6]

Attine ants have very specialized diets, which seems to reduce their microbiotic diversity.[28][29][30][31]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bolton, B. (2015). "Attini". AntCat. Retrieved 18 August 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Branstetter, M. G.; Ješovnik, A.; Sosa-Calvo, J.; Lloyd, M. W.; Faircloth, B. C.; Brady, S. G.; Schultz, T. R. (2017-04-12). "Dry habitats were crucibles of domestication in the evolution of agriculture in ants" (PDF). Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 284 (1852): 20170095. doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.0095. PMC 5394666. PMID 28404776.
  3. ^ Weber, N.A. (1966). "Fungus-Growing Ants". Science. 153 (3736): 587–604. Bibcode:1966Sci...153..587W. doi:10.1126/science.153.3736.587. PMID 17757227.
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  19. ^ a b Barke, Jörg; Seipke, Ryan F.; Grüschow, Sabine; Heavens, Darren; Drou, Nizar; Bibb, Mervyn J.; Goss, Rebecca JM; Yu, Douglas W.; Hutchings, Matthew I. (2010-08-26). "A mixed community of actinomycetes produce multiple antibiotics for the fungus farming ant Acromyrmex octospinosus". BMC Biology. 8 (1): 109. doi:10.1186/1741-7007-8-109. ISSN 1741-7007. PMC 2942817. PMID 20796277.
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External links[edit]

  • Media related to Attini at Wikimedia Commons