Our colony of leaf-cutter ants can be seen in our Brilliant Birds exhibit.
Leafcutter ants (Atta cephalotes) have powerful jaws which vibrate up to 1000 times a second, allowing them to chop up leaves. They can strip a citrus tree in twenty-four hours. Leafcutter ants don't eat the leaves, instead they harvest them and use them to cultivate a specific fungus which is their staple diet.
These ants live in huge colonies ranging from three million to eight million ants and their nests can extend across 15m (49ft) underground and 6m deep. Within these colonies ants live by a complex social structure with different groups performing specific roles.
The colony has a single queen who lays all the eggs to ensure there are enough workers. She mates with flying males and can lay up to 30,000 eggs a day. The worker and soldier ants are all wingless females.
There are four other groups of ants that make up a successful colony. The largest ants are the soldiers. They are all female and they defend the nest, clear trail paths and help carry bulky items back to the nest. They have strong jaws which can cut through leather.
The worker ants are responsible for cutting the leaves and taking them to the nest. The defenders can be seen patrolling the area around the nest. They attack anything threatening the nest or trail path. The gardeners tend to stay in the nest and cultivate the leaves to grow a fungus. This fungus is their food source.
Because leafcutter ants travel a significant distance from their nest searching for leaves this species must rely on extremely powerful scent trails to navigate the forest floor and maintain contact with other ants. Leafcutter ants produce a pheromone so powerful a single gram would be enough to create a scent trail across the world.
Chemical communication helps these ants in another way as the fungus they cultivate sends out a chemical warning if the ants bring back plant material which is toxic to it.
Over the lifetime of a single colony leafcutter ants shift 20 tons of soil.