Atta cephalotes

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Atta cephalotes
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Formicidae
Subfamily: Myrmicinae
Tribe: Attini
Genus: Atta
Species: A. cephalotes
Binomial name
Atta cephalotes
(Linnaeus, 1758)

Atta cephalotes casent0173617 profile 1.jpg

Atta cephalotes casent0173617 dorsal 1.jpg

Specimen Label


Wells et al. (2017) - Forms large colonies with millions of workers and nests that can cover more than 100 square meters (Weber 1982, Meyer et al. 2011). In secondary forests and at forest edges, they can reach very high densities and are often the dominant herbivore in the ecosystem (Farji-Brener and Illes 2000). While they are also present in primary forests, their colonies are most common in secondary or disturbed forests (Farji-Brener 2001). The large nests of Atta cephalotes have a strong effect on the leaf-litter arthropod community, adding to spatial heterogeneity within neotropical habitats.



Distribution based on Regional Taxon Lists

Neotropical Region: Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Lesser Antilles, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Suriname (type locality), Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela.

Distribution based on AntMaps


Distribution based on AntWeb specimens

Check data from AntWeb


This ant is one of the most well studied tropical ant species.


Bustamante and Amarillo-Suarez (2019) examined how temperature influenced foraging behavior. Nests and nest fragments were brought into the laboratory from field colonies located in forest and pasture sites (Cauca River Valley, Columbia). They found a significant difference in the number foragers at leaves placed in temperature-controlled foraging arenas across a range of temperatures. There were an increasing number of foragers from 15-35C, then a sharp and dramatic drop off at 40 and 45 C. There was no difference in the responses of foragers by habitat, i.e., the pasture and forest colonies.


Dijkstra and Boomsma (2006) investigated the viability of worker produced eggs in Atta cephalotes, Atta sexdens and Atta colombica. Most Atta workers have rudimentary, non-functional ovaries in a queenright colony but a few, typically tending the queen, can produce trophic eggs (Dijkstra et al., 2005). These eggs are feed to the queen. It was not known if any worker eggs can produce males. No Atta cephalotes eggs developed into males. They found Atta workers are not completely infertile, as a few males were found in other species' colonies, but worker fertility is very low. They hypothesize that worker reproduction in orphaned Atta field colonies is almost never successful because the last workers die before their sons can be raised to adulthood, but the importance of worker-laid trophic eggs for queen feeding has precluded the evolutionary loss of worker ovaries.

Interactions with other organisms

Many organisms use chemicals to deter enemies. Some spiders can modify the composition of their silk to deter predators from climbing onto their webs. The Malaysian golden orb-weaver Nephila antipodiana (Walckenaer) produces silk containing an alkaloid (2-pyrrolidinone) that functions as a defense against ant invasion. Ants avoid silk containing this chemical. In the present study, we test the generality of ants' silk avoidance behavior in the field. We introduced three ant species to the orb webs of Nephila clavipes (Linnaeus) in the tropical rainforest of La Selva, Costa Rica. We found that predatory army ants (Eciton burchellii) as well as non-predatory leaf-cutting ants (Atta cephalotes and Acromyrmex volcanus) avoided adult N. clavipes silk, suggesting that an additional species within genus Nephila may possess ant-deterring silk. Our field assay also suggests that silk avoidance behavior is found in multiple ant species.


This species is a host for the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilaterialis (a pathogen) (Shrestha et al., 2017).


Atta Cephalotes has had their entire genome sequenced.

Palomeque et al. (2015) found class II mariner elements, a form of transposable elements, in the genome of this ant.

Life History Traits

  • Mean colony size: 500,000 (Jaffe & Howse, 1979; Beckers et al., 1989)
  • Foraging behaviour: mass recruiter (Jaffe & Howse, 1979; Beckers et al., 1989)



The following information is derived from Barry Bolton's New General Catalogue, a catalogue of the world's ants.

  • cephalotes. Formica cephalotes Linnaeus, 1758: 581 (w.) SURINAM. Olivier, 1792: 500 (q.m.); Wheeler, G.C. 1949: 677 (l.). Combination in Atta: Fabricius, 1804: 421; in Oecodoma: Latreille, 1818: 224. Senior synonym of migratoria: Retzius, 1783: 76; of grossa: Latreille, 1802a: 224; of fervens: Smith, F. 1858b: 180; of visitatrix: Emery, 1892b: 162; of integrior, isthmicola, lutea, oaxaquensis, opaca, polita: Borgmeier, 1959b: 340.
  • migratoria. Formica migratoria De Geer, 1773: 604, pl. 31, figs. 11-13 (w.) SURINAM. Junior synonym of cephalotes: Retzius, 1783: 76.
  • fervens. Formica fervens Drury, 1782: 58, pl. 42, fig. 3 (q.) MEXICO. Junior synonym of cephalotes: Smith, F. 1858b: 180.
  • grossa. Formica grossa Fabricius, 1787: 309 (q.) SURINAM. Junior synonym of cephalotes: Latreille, 1802a: 224.
  • visitatrix. Formica visitatrix Christ, 1791: 517 (w.) SURINAM. Junior synonym of cephalotes: Emery, 1892b: 162.
  • lutea. Atta lutea Forel, 1893e: 587 (s.w.) BARBADOS. Subspecies of colombica: Forel, 1908c: 349. Revived status as species: Borgmeier, 1950d: 259. Subspecies of cephalotes: Weber, 1958a: 10. Junior synonym of cephalotes: Borgmeier, 1959b: 340.
  • integrior. Atta cephalotes var. integrior Forel, 1904c: 31 (w.) BRAZIL. Subspecies of cephalotes: Gonçalves, 1942: 346. Junior synonym of cephalotes: Borgmeier, 1959b: 340.
  • opaca. Atta cephalotes var. opaca Forel, 1904c: 31 (w.) COLOMBIA. Subspecies of cephalotes: Gonçalves, 1942: 345. Junior synonym of cephalotes: Borgmeier, 1959b: 340.
  • polita. Atta cephalotes subsp. polita Emery, 1905c: 54 (w.) BOLIVIA. Raised to species: Borgmeier, 1939: 423. Subspecies of vollenweideri: Borgmeier, 1950d: 243. Junior synonym of cephalotes: Borgmeier, 1959b: 340.
  • isthmicola. Atta cephalotes subsp. isthmicola Weber, 1941b: 127 (w.q.) PANAMA. Junior synonym of cephalotes: Borgmeier, 1959b: 340.
  • oaxaquensis. Atta (Atta) cephalotes subsp. oaxaquensis Gonçalves, 1942: 344 (w.) MEXICO. Junior synonym of cephalotes: Borgmeier, 1959b: 340.



  • Beckers R., Goss, S., Deneubourg, J.L., Pasteels, J.M. 1989. Colony size, communication and ant foraging Strategy. Psyche 96: 239-256 (doi:10.1155/1989/94279).
  • Borgmeier, T. 1959b. Revision der Gattung Atta Fabricius (Hymenoptera, Formicidae). Stud. Entomol. (n.s.) 2: 321-390 (page 340, senior synonym of integrior, isthmicola, lutea, oaxaquensis, opaca and polita)
  • Bustamante, S. and A. Amarillo-Suarez. 2019. Foraging plasticity of Atta cephalotes (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) in response to temperature differences between forest and pasture. Revista De Biologia Tropical. 67:963-974.
  • Castano-Quintana, K., Montoya-Lermaa, J. & Giraldo-Echeverri, C. 2013. Toxicity of foliage extracts of Tithonia diversifolia (Asteraceae) on Atta cephalotes (Hymenoptera: Myrmicinae) workers. Industrial Crops and Products 44, 391–395.
  • Dijkstra, M. B. and J. J. Boomsma. 2006. Are workers of Atta leafcutter ants capable of reproduction? Insectes Sociaux. 53(2):136-140. doi:10.1007/s00040-005-0848-3
  • Dijkstra, M. B., D. R. Nash, and J. J. Boomsma. 2005. Self-restraint and sterility in workers of Acromyrmex and Atta leafcutter ants. Insectes Sociaux. 52(1):67-76. doi:10.1007/s00040-004-0775-8
  • Emery, C. 1892c [1891]. Note sinonimiche sulle formiche. Bull. Soc. Entomol. Ital. 23: 159-167 (page 162, senior synonym of visitatrix)
  • Fabricius, J. C. 1804. Systema Piezatorum secundum ordines, genera, species, adjectis synonymis, locis, observationibus, descriptionibus. Brunswick: C. Reichard, xiv + 15-439 + 30 pp. (page 421, combination in Atta)
  • Knowlton, E. D. and A. Kamath. 2018. Ants Do Not Traverse the Silk of Adult Female Nephila clavipes (Linnaeus) Webs. Neotropical Entomology. 47:780-785. doi:10.1007/s13744-018-0631-6
  • Latreille, P. A. 1802b. Histoire naturelle générale et particulière des Crustacés et des insectes. Tome 3. Familles naturelles des genres. Paris: F. Dufart, xii + 467 pp. (page 224, senior synonym of grossa)
  • Latreille, P. A. 1818a. Oecodome. P. 50 in: Nouveau dictionnaire d'histoire naturelle. Nouvelle édition. Tome XXIII. Paris: Déterville, 612 pp. (page 224, combination in Oecodoma)
  • Linnaeus, C. 1758. Systema naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio decima, reformata. Holmiae [= Stockholm]: L. Salvii, 824 pp. (page 581, worker described)
  • Martins, J., Jr.; Solomon, S. E.; Mikheyev, A. S.; Mueller, U. G.; Ortiz, A.; Bacci, M., Jr. 2007. Nuclear mitochondrial-like sequences in ants: evidence from Atta cephalotes (Formicidae: Attini). Insect Molecular Biology 16:777-784. [2007-12] PDF 131828
  • Olivier, A. G. 1792. Encyclopédie méthodique. Histoire naturelle. Insectes. Tome 6. (pt. 2). Paris: Panckoucke, pp. 369-704. (page 500, queen, male described)
  • Palomeque, T., O. Sanllorente, X. Maside, J. Vela, P. Mora, M. I. Torres, G. Periquet, and P. Lorite. 2015. Evolutionary history of the Azteca-like mariner transposons and their host ants. Science of Nature. 102. doi:10.1007/s00114-015-1294-3
  • Retzius, A. J. 1783. Caroli de Geer. Genera et species insectorum e generosissimi auctoris scriptis extraxit, digessit, Latine quoad partem reddidit, et terminologiam insectorum Linneanam addidit. Lipsiae [= Leipzig]: Cruse, 220 pp. (page 76, senior synonym of migratoria)
  • Shrestha B, Tanaka E, Hyun MW, Han JG, Kim CS, Jo JW, Han SK, Oh J, Sung JM, Sung GH. 2017. Mycosphere Essay 19. Cordyceps species parasitizing hymenopteran and hemipteran insects. Mycosphere 8(9): 1424–1442 (DOI 10.5943/mycosphere/8/9/8).
  • Smith, F. 1858a. Catalogue of hymenopterous insects in the collection of the British Museum. Part VI. Formicidae. London: British Museum, 216 pp. (page 180, senior synonym of fervens)
  • Suen G, Teiling C, Li L, Holt C, Abouheif E, et al. (2011) The Genome Sequence of the Leaf-Cutter Ant Atta cephalotes Reveals Insights into Its Obligate Symbiotic Lifestyle. PLoS Genetics. 7(2):e1002007. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1002007
  • Wells, R. L., S. K. Murphy, and M. D. Moran. 2017. Habitat Modification by the Leaf-Cutter Ant, Atta cephalotes, and Patterns of Leaf-Litter Arthropod Communities. Environmental Entomology. 46:1264-1274. doi:10.1093/ee/nvx162
  • Wheeler, G. C. 1949 [1948]. The larvae of the fungus-growing ants. Am. Midl. Nat. 40: 664-689 (page 677, larva described)