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Neotrop Entomol. 2012 Aug;41(4):257-62. doi: 10.1007/s13744-012-0052-x. Epub 2012 Jun 26.

Spatial distribution and fruiting phenology of Protium heptaphyllum (Burseraceae) determine the design of the underground foraging system of Atta sexdens L. (Hymenoptera: Formicidae).

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Lab de Biossistemática Animal, Univ Estadual do Sudoeste da Bahia, Itapetinga, BA, Brasil.


Leaf-cutting ants have long been recognized to forage via complex trail systems but the nature and the ecological drivers of the different foraging strategies adopted remain a key topic. Here, we described the spatiotemporal use of belowground foraging galleries by Atta sexdens L. in the Brazilian Atlantic forest, and examined the adaptive advantages of this foraging strategy. Protium heptaphyllum adult trees (DBH > 10 cm), seed/seedling clumps and ant gallery entrances were mapped across two 1-ha plots during two consecutive fruiting seasons (2002 and 2004). We recorded 75 ca. 40 cm deep gallery entrances beneath 26 P. heptaphyllum trees at nest distances ranging from 14 to 57 m. Furthermore, gallery abundance and galleries associated with seed/seedling clumps correlated positively with P. heptaphyllum density. Our results indicate that A. sexdens was able to set a permanent system of underground galleries targeting P. heptaphyllum trees and their seeds on the ground. Such network of galleries was spatially arranged according to both the spatial distribution and abundance of P. heptaphyllum trees in a way that most gallery entrances were disposed beneath or in close periphery of P. heptaphyllum crowns. Our findings suggest that underground trail systems shaped by fruit resources represent a foraging strategy clearly more common than existing literature on the subject would suggest. In addition, it reinforces the notion that the spatiotemporal availability of resources combined with predation risk largely influence trail configurations as well as overall foraging strategies adopted by leaf-cutting ants.

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