Symbiotic fungi alter plant chemistry that discourages leaf-cutting ants


Author for correspondence:

Catalina Estrada

Tel: +1 507 2128278



  • Fungal symbionts that live asymptomatically inside plant tissues (endophytes) can influence plant–insect interactions. Recent work has shown that damage by leaf-cutting ants, a major Neotropical defoliator, is reduced to almost half in plants with high densities of endophytes. We investigated changes in the phenotype of leaves that could influence ants' behavior to result in the reduction of foliar damage.

  • We produced cucumber seedlings with high and low densities of one common endophyte species, Colletotrichum tropicale. We used the leaves in bioassays and to compare chemical and physical leaf characteristics important for ants' food selection.

  • Ants cut about one-third more area of cucumber leaves with lower densities of endophytes and removed c. 20% more paper disks impregnated with the extracts of those leaves compared with leaves and disks from plants hosting the fungus. Colletotrichum tropicale colonization did not cause detectable changes in the composition of volatile compounds, cuticular waxes, nutrients or leaf toughness.

  • Our study shows that endophytes changed leaf chemistry and suggests that compounds with relative low volatility released after leaf wounding are a major factor influencing foraging decisions by ants when choosing between plants with low or high endophyte loads.