, Volume 74, Issue 1, pp 55–61 | Cite as

Host-plant selection, diet diversity, and optimal foraging in a tropical leafcutting ant

  • L. L. Rockwood
  • S. P. Hubbell
Original Papers


A month-long study was conducted on the comparative foraging behavior of 20 colonies of the leafcutting ant, Atta cephalotes L. in Santa Rosa National Park, Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica. The study was conducted during the middle of the wet season, when trees had mature foliage and the ants were maximally selective among species of potential host plants. The colonies always gathered leaves from more than a single tree species but on average one species constituted almost half the diet with the remaining species being of geometrically decreasing importance. Colonies exhibited greater diversity in their choice of leaves and lower constancy of foraging when the average quality of resource trees was lower, as predicted by elementary optimal foraging theory. Furthermore, the ants were more selective of the species they attacked at greater distances from the nest. However, the ants sometimes did not attack apparently palatable species, and often did not attack nearby individuals of species they were exploiting at greater distances.

A classical explanation for why leafcutting ants exploit distant host trees when apparently equally good trees are nearer, is that the ants are pursuing a strategy of conserving resources to avoid long-term overgrazing pressure on nearby trees. We prefer a simpler hypothesis: (1) Trees of exploited species exhibit individual variation in the acceptability of their leaves to the ants. (2) The abundance of a species will generally increase with area and radial distance from the nest, so the probability that at least one tree of the species will be acceptable to the ants also increases with distance. (3) The ants forage using a system of trunk-trails cleared of leaf litter, which significantly reduces their travel time to previously discovered, high-quality resource trees (by a factor of 4- to 10-fold). (4) Foragers are unware of the total pool of resources available to the colony. Therefore once scouts have chanced upon a tree which is acceptable, the colony will concentrate on harvesting from that tree rather than searching for additional sources of leaves distant from the established trail.

Key words

Atta cephalotes Foraging Costa Rica 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • L. L. Rockwood
    • 1
  • S. P. Hubbell
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of BiologyGeorge Mason UniversityFairfaxUSA
  2. 2.Program in Evolutionary Ecology and Behavior, Department of BiologyUniversity of IowaIowa CityUSA

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