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Leaf Cutter Ant

Atta spp.

Did you know?

  • Leaf cutter ants are part of the Formicidae family, which they share with other ants.
  • They live across the Southwestern United States and South America.
  • A large colony of leaf cutter ants can strip a tree of leaves in just one night!
  • An adult can grow to be about 0.25 centimeters long.
  • The "Queen" ant becomes the mother of every new ant in the colony.

Fungus Farmers

Mounds of soil on the forest floor mark the entrances to the nests of leaf cutter ants. These industrious little ants use their sharp jaws to snip off pieces of leaves, then they carry them high over their heads back to their nest. But leaf cutter ants do not eat the leaves they snip. Instead, they use them to create "fungus gardens" in their underground nests. The gardens are a source of food for a leaf cutter ant colony; the fungus from the leaves produces an orange food body, which is what the ants actually eat. Adults also feed on nectar. They feed their young (grubs) animal matter, usually other invertebrates.

The Colony

Leaf cutter colonies contain various different castes of ants. Each caste carries out tasks that are essential to the colony's survival and growth.

The Queen is the founder of the colony. Once her new colony is established, her only job is to lay eggs. The workers are sterile females, divided into three sizes and "job" classifications: Small workers stay inside the nest to tend the fungus gardens and care for larvae; medium-sized workers stay mainly above ground, cutting and carrying leaves and other nest material; and large workers patrol the colony, on the lookout for enemies.

A leaf cutter ant colony contains male ants only when it is ready to expand into new colonies. During this time, the queen lays special eggs that become fertile females and males. These winged ants then fly away to mate and start new colonies. The males die soon after mating, and the females lose their wings after mating.

Threat Level

  • Unknown
  • Common
  • Near Threatened
  • Threatened
  • Endangered
  • Critically Endangered
  • Extinct in the Wild


Leaf cutter ants are widespread and abundant.


Southwestern United States to South America


Tropical and deciduous forests, scrublands

we care about leaf cutter ants

The Saint Louis Zoo supports a colony of leaf cutter ants in the Insectarium at the Zoo. Learn more about how we are helping wildlife around the world.

Dedicated to Conservation

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