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Spatially Heterogeneous Nest-Clearing Behavior Coincides with Rain Event in the Leaf-Cutting Ant Atta cephalotes (L.) (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)

Stephan, J G, Wirth, R, Leal, I R, Meyer, S T
Neotropical entomology 2015 v.44 no.2 pp. 123-128
Atta cephalotes, Licania, ant nests, canopy gaps, defoliation, ecosystem engineers, entomology, foraging, forests, leaf area, leaf-cutting ants, microclimate, nesting sites, nutrient availability, rain, seedlings, tropics, Brazil
Leaf-cutting ants of the genus Atta construct the probably largest nests among ants and are ecosystem engineers because they alter light and nutrient availability at nest sites. Besides creating canopy gaps in the forest, workers remove all vegetation from atop their nest mounds. Here, we examined the extent and spatial distribution of this nest-clearing behavior by transplanting Licania tomentosa seedlings on Atta cephalotes (Linnaeus) nest mounds in the Atlantic forest in northeast Brazil and documented defoliation patterns by the workers. Within 9 days, workers removed around 53% of the total leaf area planted per colony. All colonies showed a synchronized start of defoliation after a rain event in the fifth night after the seedlings had been transplanted. Defoliation increased with time elapsed since transplanting and with the number of entrances surrounding each seedling. In addition, workers started defoliation on the top of the mound. In contrast, the distance to the next entrance and the size of the seedling did not affect the defoliation pattern. Defoliation was not part of the colony foraging activities but was identified as an element of nest maintenance. Possible cues triggering nest-clearing behavior and the potential link between nest-clearing activities and the control of microclimate of ant nests are discussed.