Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 64, Issue 8, pp 1219–1228 | Cite as

Waste management in the leaf-cutting ant Acromyrmex echinatior: the role of worker size, age and plasticity

  • Sarah J. Waddington
  • William O. H. Hughes
Original Paper


Division of labour is the hallmark of the success of many social animals. It may be especially important with regard to waste management because waste often contains pathogens or hazardous toxins and worker specialisation can reduce the number of group members exposed to it. Here we examine waste management in a fungus-farming, leaf-cutting ant, Acromyrmex echinatior, in which waste management is necessary to protect their vulnerable fungal crop. By marking ants with task-specific paint colours, we found clear division of labour between workers that engage in waste management and those that forage, at least during the fine timescale of the 3-day marking period. This division of labour was influenced by both age and size, with waste management workers tending to be smaller and younger than foragers. The role of preventing contaminated ants from entering the colony was fulfilled mainly by medium-sized workers. When the level of waste was experimentally increased, most of the ants that responded to remove the waste were workers previously engaged in tasks inside the nest rather than external waste workers or foragers. These responding workers tended to be young and medium-sized. Surprisingly, the responding ants were subsequently able to revert back to working within the fungus garden, but the probability of them doing so depended on their age and the length of time they were exposed to waste. The results demonstrate the importance of division of labour with regard to waste management in A. echinatior and show that this is adaptable to changing needs.


Social insect Hygiene Caste Polyethism Stimulus-response threshold 



We thank the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute for facilities in Gamboa, the Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (ANAM) for permission to collect and export the ants, J.J. Boomsma for providing the ant colonies, L. A. Santorelli, C. L. Frost, F. R. Ryan and A. Reynolds for technical assistance, the referees for their constructive comments and the Leverhulme Foundation for funding. The work described in this article complies with the current laws of the countries in which it was performed. The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Integrative and Comparative BiologyUniversity of LeedsLeedsUK

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