Sodium-specific foraging by leafcutter ant workers (Atta cephalotes, Hymenoptera: Formicidae)


  • Authors contributed equally; order of authorship was determined by randomisation except the senior author S.O'D.

Sean O’Donnell, Department of Biology, Drexel University, 3245 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104, U.S.A. E-mail:


1. Sodium is often a limiting nutrient for terrestrial animals, and may be especially sought by herbivores. Leafcutter ants are dominant herbivores in the Neotropics, and leafcutter foraging may be affected by nutritional demands of the colony and/or the demands of their symbiotic fungal mutualists. We hypothesized that leafcutter colonies are sodium limited, and that leafcutter ants will therefore forage specifically for sodium.

2. Previous studies demonstrated that leafcutter Atta cephalotes Linnaeus workers preferentially cut and remove paper baits treated with NaCl relative to water control baits. Atta cephalotes colonies in this study were presented with baits offering NaCl, Na2SO4, and KCl to test whether leafcutters forage specifically for sodium. Sucrose and water were used as positive and negative controls, respectively.

3. Atta foragers removed significantly more of the baits treated with NaCl and Na2SO4 than the KCl treatment, which did not differ from water. The NaCl and Na2SO4 treatments were collected at similar rates. We conclude A. cephalotes forage specifically for sodium rather than for anions (chloride) or solutes in general. This study supports the hypothesis that leafcutter ants are limited by, and preferentially forage for, sodium.