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Leaf nutrient content and host plant selection by leaf-cutter ants, Atta laevigata, in a Neotropical savanna


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The selection of nutrient-rich leaves by leaf-cutter ants (Atta spp.) is thought to be of indirect benefit to these ants by promoting the growth of their symbiotic fungus. However, relatively few studies have analyzed the influence of leaf nutrient content on host plant selection by leaf-cutter ants, and conflicting results have been found. We compared the content of eight nutritional elements plus the non-nutrient aluminum between leaves harvested by colonies of Atta laevigata (Smith) (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Attini) and leaves collected randomly within their foraging areas. In addition, we evaluated whether leaf nutrient content explained the frequency with which these ants attacked and defoliated some of the tree species found in the study area. For 2 years, we monitored 17–26 trees from 15 species and determined the number of times each plant was attacked and the amount and type of foliage removed. Leaves harvested by A. laevigata presented significantly higher concentrations of N, P, K, Zn, and Cu than those collected randomly. This result is likely to reflect the foraging pattern presented by these ants, which were selective both in terms of the plant species and age of leaves most commonly attacked. Young leaves were the only or the main leaf type exploited in many species, and in comparison to mature leaves these presented significantly higher concentrations of P and K. Large differences in the mean number of ant attacks on the tree species studied were also observed, and those presenting more leaf N tended to be the most frequently attacked.

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