, Volume 53, Issue 3, pp 326-332

Hitchhiking behaviour in leaf-cutter ants: An experimental evaluation of three hypotheses

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In leaf-cutter ants, small workers often ride or “hitchhike” on leaf fragments carried back to the nest by larger foragers. There are several possible explanations for this unusual behaviour, the main ones being defence against phorid flies, defence against fungal contaminants, and leaf sap obtention. Here we tested these three hypotheses using standardized paired assays with laboratory colonies of Atta sexdens and field colonies of Atta laevigata. For both ant species, the proportion of fragments with hitchhikers increased significantly in response to the presence of fungal contaminants and to leaf sap. The proportion of fragments with hitchhikers also increased in the presence of phorid flies (Neodohrniphora erthali), but only for A. sexdens. In addition, hitchhiker position varied with the treatment applied. In the presence of phorids, hitchhikers frequently moved around the fragment; in the presence of leaf sap, hitchhikers frequently stood at the edge of the fragments, whereas when fragments were inoculated with fungal contaminants, hitchhikers were more often in the centre of the fragment, where the contamination was greatest. Our results strongly suggest that hitchhiking behaviour in Atta has multiple functions. Such behaviour probably evolved as a mechanism of defence, both against potential contaminants of the symbiotic fungus and against ant parasitoids. The obtention of leaf sap by minims seems to be a secondary and probably opportunistic function of this behaviour.

Received 7 November 2005; revised 16 March 2006; accepted 6 April 2006.