Large ants: April 2010 Archives

This is a great question and fits well with our post below on "What is the largest ant in the world?"

Leaf-cutter ants of the genus Atta are well known for cutting and carrying bits of leaf material back to their nest. They then chew this leaf material up into a fine paste to use as the substrate to grow their food - fungus! This is where they get their other common name, fungus-growing ants. Since fungus growing ants have been cultivating fungus for ~50 millions of years, this makes them the worlds first farmers.

Atta texana worker w_leaf.jpg

Worker of Atta texana carrying leaf material back to the nest. Photo by Alex Wild (www.alexanderwild.com).


In a leaf-cutter ant colony there are many sizes of individuals from minute workers to large soldiers to the giant queen herself. The queen of leaf-cutter colonies such as Atta cephalotes can be 22 mm in length. Not quite as long as the the African driver ants mentioned in the post below, but still very large.

Atta texana queen.jpg

Queen and workers of Atta texana on fungus garden. Photo by Alex Wild (www.alexanderwild.com).


Borgmeier, T. (1959) Revision der Gattung Atta Fabricius (Hymenoptera, Formicidae). Studia Entomologica (N.S.) 2: 321-390.
Schultz, T.R. & Brady, S.G. (2008) Major evolutionary transitions in ant agriculture. PNAS 105: 5435-5440


- Corrie Moreau & the AntAsk Team

Well, Luke, there are many ways to answer that question. In virtually all ant colonies the queen is the largest member, and none are larger than those of the African driver ants in the genus Dorylus, measuring more than 4 cm long. Colonies of this species may include many millions of individuals, all of which are laid by one massive queen. Males of this genus are almost as long (~3 cm) and more robust than queens. Commonly known as "sausage flies" for their characteristically long and bloated abdomen, males disperse from their natal nest in search of other colonies, which drag the male into the nest to mate with virgin queens.


Several species may claim to have the largest workers, including the "dinosaur ants" in the genus Dinoponera from South America and Camponotus gigas of Southeast Asia, each measuring about 3 cm. Just slightly smaller than these two giants is the notorious bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) of Central and South America, so-called for its excruciating sting.

DinAus4.JPG

One of South America's largest ants, Dinoponera australis. Photo: Alex Wild (www.alexanderwild.com)

Perhaps the largest ant ever is the extinct Formicium giganteum from the Eocene (about 46 million years ago), whose queen measured 5.5 cm long with a 13 cm wingspan - larger than a ruby-throated hummingbird. By comparison, the smallest workers in the ant genus Carebara can be smaller than a pinhead (< 1 mm)!

- Tim O'Connor & the AntAsk team