Do herbivores exert top-down effects in Neotropical savannas? Estimates of biomass consumption by leaf-cutter ants


  • Acknowledgements. We thank UFU for providing logistical support, F. Mundim and R. Pacheco for assistance in the field, and J. Goheen, J. Maron, F. Putz, G. Cumming, and three anonymous reviewers for comments on the manuscript. Financial support was provided by grants from CNPq (350046/1995–6 and 47.0724/2004–8), FAPEMIG (CRA-703/2004), and the US National Science Foundation (OISE 0437369).

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Plant communities in Paleotropical savannas are regulated by a combination of bottom-up and top-down effects. However, the paucity of ungulates and other large herbivores in Neotropical savannas has led to speculation that these communities are primarily structured by physical factors such as fire, precipitation and soil chemistry. We addressed the following question: How much plant biomass is consumed by leaf-cutter ants in Neotropical savannas, and is it comparable to the amount of biomass consumed by herbivores in Paleotropical savanna sites?


Our study was conducted at the Estação Ecológica do Panga, located 30 km south of Uberlândia, Minas Gerais, Brazil. All field work was conducted in the vegetation type known as cerrado sensu stricto.

Methods and Results

Using direct measurements of herbivory, coupled with estimates of plant productivity and ant colony density, we found that leaf-cutter ants (Atta spp.) consume 13–17% of the foliar biomass produced annually by woody plants in a Neotropical savanna (Brazilian cerrado). Although comparisons with other savanna systems are complicated by methodological differences among studies, the proportion of biomass consumed by Atta species is about 25% of that consumed by the entire ungulate community in some African savannas and greater than or comparable to the total herbivory observed in some terrestrial ecosystems.


We hypothesize that this intense biomass consumption by Atta will have important ecological consequences for the cerrado ecosystem, because leaf-cutter abundance increases in fragmented or degraded habitats. These effects are likely to be exacerbated as anthropogenic pressure in this biodiversity hotspot increases.