Leaf-cutter ants (Atta cephalotes)

Leaf-cutter Ants

Our ant colony is located in the science gallery within our Tropical House: Energy for Life.

Fast facts

Status Not yet assessed by IUCN Redlist

Size Queen length: 22mm. Male length: 18mm. Worker length: 2-14mm.

Gestation Egg to larvae: 3-4 weeks

Young up to 30,000 eggs a day

Life span unknown in the wild; 1-2 years for a worker, over 10 years for a queen in captivity

What do I eat?

Leaf cutter ants do not eat leaves as they cannot digest the plant material.

They use their powerful jaws to cut up leaves and bring them back to the colony, where they create a compost pile from the cut leaves within their nest. This is to encourage a fungus to grow, and it is this fungus the leaf-cutter ants eat!

Where do I live?

Leaf-cutter ants are found throughout Central and South America. They live in rainforests and patches of forest that have mature or old trees within them; they are also found on farms and plantations.


Only the queen will breed in a colony of leaf-cutter ants, and she can lay thousands of eggs each day!

A colony is started by a single female queen ant; they will dig a tunnel in to the ground or tree. They would have taken a small amount of fungus from their previous colony to start a new ‘fungus garden’ to produce food and then they begin laying eggs. Development from egg to larvae and then into an adult ant can take 40-50 days.

Most of the offspring will be worker ants, the others will be male and sometimes breeding females which when old enough will leave the nest to start a new colony.


The main predators of leaf-cutter ants are giant anteaters and armadillos.

To stay safe there are larger leaf-cutter ants in the colony known as ‘soldiers’, and these ants protect the worker ants and the nest. They have large powerful jaws, which they use to attack predators causing a sharp painful bite.


Leaf-cutter ants are seen as a pest as they can cause a lot of damage to crops, as they can remove a lot of leaves from various plants in a short amount of time.

Although they are seen as a pest by many farmers, these animals have an important role in their habitat; when they cut away at vegetation it encourages new plant growth, and they help break down plant material which then adds more nutrients to the soil.

At this time there are no conservation plans in place for the leaf-cutter ant, as they are found in large numbers across their range.

Did you know?

Leaf-cutter ants have many different roles within a colony. The queen lays the eggs, there are breeding males, soldier ants defend the colony, and there are workers that have different roles from collecting leaves to looking after the fungus garden.

The breeding male leaf-cutter ants soon die after mating with the queen ant.

To ensure that they do not get lost when looking for leaves, leaf-cutter ants produce a pheromone (scent) trail so that they can find their way back to the colony.

A single leaf-cutter ant colony can have around 3-8 million ants within it, and the nest can be 15 metres across and 6 metres deep!


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I'm still buzzing!

I am still buzzing from my visit, a fantastic day, with very friendly people and amazing animals, I'm already signed up for the next volunteering day!! Wendy, Southern Co-op, 23rd May 2018