From an ecological standpoint, the symbiosis between leaf-cutting ants and their fungus can be described as an herbivore feeding on plant material harvested by the ants, metabolized by the fungus, and finally removed by the ants as refuse. Here, we report on a nutrient balance (soluble and insoluble carbon and nitrogen compounds) between harvested and refuse material collected from six Acromyrmex lundi nests from a semiarid woodland in Córdoba, Argentina. The nutrient balance was calculated using cellulose as an indicator. Harvested material had low protein (10%) and high fiber content (57%). Refuse material was rich in fiber (53%), total nitrogen (2%), and ash content (28%). Balance was negative for soluble carbon and phenols. Soluble fibers, lignin, and true protein remained unchanged. Surprisingly, crude protein and all soluble nitrogen fractions had a positive balance, suggesting additional nitrogen sources besides plant material. Phenol utilization by the leaf-cutting ant fungus suggests that phenols are not harmful to the fungus. Inability to metabolize insoluble carbon compounds and a net nitrogen gain in the refuse material were peculiar and interesting features of the ant–fungus system.
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Vol. 36 • No. 3