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Leafcutter Ant (Atta cephalotes) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

Introduction to the leafcutter ants

  • One of the few nonhuman animals with specialized agriculture (e.g., Mueller et al. 2005; Nygaard et al. 2016; Schultz et al. 2022)
    • Termites and bark beetles also farm fungi for food
  • Fungus-farming leafcutter ants include the genera Atta, Acromyrmex, and Amoimyrmex (Mueller et al. 2018; Cristiano et al. 2020)
    • Approximately 40 species described
  • For in-depth introductions, see books by Hölldobler and Wilson (1990, 2009, 2011).


  • Genus Atta
    • Approximately 15 species (Hölldobler and Wilson 1990; Hölldobler and Wilson 2011)
    • Life history traits very similar across Atta species (Hölldobler and Wilson 2009, 2011)
  • Subtribe Attina: fungus-farming ants (Ward et al. 2015; ITIS 2022b)
    • 20 genera, and 246 species (Li et al. 2018, Table S4)
    • Found in tropical regions of Central and South America, and regions with subtropical and warm climates in Mexico and the southern U.S.

Local names for attine ants

(Hölldobler and Wilson 1990; Hölldobler and Wilson 2011; Alejandro G. Farji-Brener, personal communication, 2022)

  • Nicaragua and Belize: wiwi
  • Cuba: bibijagua
  • Mexico: hormiga arriera
  • Trinidad: bachac
  • Venequela: bachaco
  • Brazil: saúva
  • Guyana: cushi
  • Peru: coqui
  • Costa Rica (zompopa)
  • English-speaking countries: leafcutter (or parasol) ants (Atta spp.)

Evolutionary History

Fossil history and evolutionary relationships 

  • Ant cultivation of fungi for food originated about 55–68 mya (Nygaard et al. 2016; Li et al. 2018; Hanisch et al. 2022) 
    • Leaf-cutting agriculture began approximately 18 mya (Schultz and Brady 2008; Barrera et al. 2022) 
  • Atta emerged between 8 and 17 mya (Schultz and Brady 2008; Nygaard et al. 2016; Li et al. 2018; Barrera et al. 2022, except as noted) 
    • Forest clearings and edges increased during the Pleistocene 
  • Burst of Atta speciation 3–5 mya (early Pliocene) (Barrera et al. 2022) 
    • Included divergence of Atta cephalotes and A. columbica  
  • Atta cephalotes emerged approximately 1.1 mya (Barrera et al. 2022, Table S6) 
  • Only 1 possible Atta fossil known (Bacci et al. 2009) 

Closest extant/living relatives 

  • Atta columbica (Bacci et al. 2009; Barrera et al. 2022) 


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Arthropoda

Class: Insecta

Order: Hymenoptera

Family: Formicidae

Genus: Atta (Fabricius, 1804)

Species: Atta cephalotes (Linnaeus, 1758)


Sources: ITIS (2022a)

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