Insectes Sociaux

, Volume 59, Issue 4, pp 487–498 | Cite as

Ventilation of the giant nests of Atta leaf-cutting ants: does underground circulating air enter the fungus chambers?

  • M. BollazziEmail author
  • L. C. Forti
  • F. Roces
Research Article


Nest ventilation should be particularly relevant for the huge colonies of leaf-cutting ants, genus Atta. Considerable amounts of O2 are consumed and CO2 produced by both the fungus gardens and the ants inside nest chambers, which are located at deep soil layers characterized by high CO2 and low O2 concentrations. In this work, passive nest ventilation was investigated in field Atta capiguara and Atta laevigata nests, first, by evaluating air movements through the nest using propane as tracer gas as well as the CO2 and O2 concentrations of the circulating air, and second, by exposing the internal nest morphology with the use of cement casts and excavations. Results showed that even though outflow of CO2-rich air and inflow of O2-rich air occurred at high-placed and low-placed openings, respectively, supporting a wind-induced interpretation of air movements through the nest, circulating air was never detected inside fungus chambers. The CO2 and O2 levels inside the fungus chambers increased and decreased with increasing soil depth, respectively, and were in the range observed in the soil phase. Based on the underground nest architecture, it is concluded that although the external shape of the nest induces underground air circulation, the inflowing air is unable to directly reach the fungus chambers. It is argued that colony respiration completely depends on diffusive flows between the chamber air and the adjacent nest and soil atmospheres. Circulating air, although not directly renewing the air inside the nest chambers, may contribute to colony respiration by increasing the capacity of the nest and soil airs to act as an O2-source and a CO2-sink, because of the decrease in the CO2 and the increase in the O2 levels in the underground air phase. Possible adaptations of both ants and fungus to the high CO2 and low O2 concentrations usually found in soils are discussed.


Ants Atta Nest Ventilation Respiration Diffusion 



We thank Christoph Kleineidam (Univ. Konstanz) for comments on a previous draft. Thanks are due to Angel Vidal (Univ. Buenos Aires) for developing and constructing the propane-datalogger, to Scott Turner (SUNY-ESF, Syracuse) for advice on propane sensors, to Ana Paula P. Andrade for the excavation of the large A. capiguara nest used to illustrate the general nest morphology in this species, to Sinara Moreira for the excavation of small A. laevigata nests, and to Nelson Carneiro, Antonio Marcos de Lima and Donizete de Almeida for much help during nest excavations. This study was performed in the framework of the co-operation agreement between the UNESP-Botucatu and the University of Würzburg (Ref. 910-2007). Financial support was provided by funds from the German Research Foundation (DFG, Grant SFB 554/TP E1), the São Paulo State Research Foundation FAPESP (2010/00204-7), and the Brazilian National Research Council CNPq (4726712008-1).


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Copyright information

© International Union for the Study of Social Insects (IUSSI) 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Unidad de Entomología, Departamento de Protección Vegetal, Facultad de AgronomíaUniversidad de la RepublicaMontevideoUruguay
  2. 2.Laboratorio de Insetos Sociais-PragaState University of São Paulo, Rua José Barbosa de Barros 1780BotucatuBrazil
  3. 3.Department of Behavioural Physiology and Sociobiology, BiocenterUniversity of WürzburgWürzburgGermany

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