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Leaf‐cutting ants use relative humidity and temperature but not CO2 levels as cues for the selection of an underground dumpsite

Römer, Daniela, Bollazzi, Martin, Roces, Flavio
Ecological entomology 2019 v.44 no.4 pp. 502-511
Atta, air, carbon dioxide, fungi, hygiene, leaf-cutting ants, microclimate, nests, pathogens, rearing, relative humidity, soil profiles, temperature, waste disposal, waste disposal sites, wastes
1. Leaf‐cutting ants remove copious amounts of colony waste, a potential pathogen source for workers and reared symbiotic fungus, to above‐ground heaps or deep underground chambers. However, the dumpsite may also contain information about plants initially harvested and disposed of because of unsuitability for the fungus. 2. The underground environment presents climatic gradients across the soil profile and it is an open question whether leaf‐cutting ants use microclimatic cues to choose suitable sites for waste disposal, as displayed for other in‐nest tasks. 3. Climatic preferences in leaf‐cutting ants were investigated for the deposition of colony waste. In the laboratory, deposition of waste particles by workers of Atta laevigata was quantified by offering them, in different experiments, a binary choice of temperatures (range, 15–30 °C), levels of air humidity (range 10–98%), and CO₂ concentrations (range, atmospheric values to 10%). 4. Leaf‐cutting ants used temperature and air humidity, but not CO₂ levels, as cues for the deposition of their waste. They consistently preferred a dry (≤ 33% air humidity) environment. Less consistent, temperature preferences varied depending on colony (15–25 °C for one colony and 25–30 °C for the other). Although workers showed clear preferences for high levels of CO₂ for themselves, they were CO₂‐indifferent for waste deposition. 5. It is argued that the observed climatic preferences for underground waste disposal might aid nest hygiene by providing unsuitable dry conditions for pathogen growth, with thermal preferences that do not hinder worker activities for further waste management and inspection of discarded plants.