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Behavioural biomechanics of insect herbivory - a case study on leaf-cutter ants

Project description

How to make crops insect-proof

Insect herbivores represent a permanent threat to agriculture and global food security. One novel way to address this problem may be to understand the role biomechanical restrictions play in the performance of prolific insect herbivores. The EU-funded MechAnt project will use leaf-cutter ants as a model system to derive fundamental knowledge on the role of mechanics in plant-feeding by insects. The project will evaluate the hypothesis that the social organisation of leaf-cutter colonies is based on ergonomic standards, which in turn are controlled by the properties of the leaves. A wide range of scientific fields will be used to identify and explain the mechanisms and restrictions that determine the insects’ cutting performance.


Insect herbivores are a dominant element in terrestrial ecosystems, and pose a continuing threat to global food security. However, little is known about a key determinant of insect herbivore success: the mechanics of plant-feeding. MechAnt proposes to transform our understanding of insect-plant relations by providing a rigorous biomechanical investigation into how insects cut leaves, using the major ecosystem engineers and principal insect pest of the New World, the leaf-cutter ants, as a model system. Specifically, MechAnt will combine the traditionally separate fields of behavioural ecology, mechanical engineering, materials science, computer vision and machine learning to investigate: (1) the mechanical and energetic constraints determining the cutting ability, and ontogeny of task choice of differently-sized workers, and hence the adaptive value of physical castes in eusocial insects; (2) the relationship between plant material properties, ease of cutting, and mandibular wear, which will reveal the key mechanical determinants of plant-herbivore species interactions; (3) the division of labour, ontogeny and demography of leaf-cutter colonies foraging on leaves of different “toughness”, testing the hypothesis that leaf-cutter colonies are organised according to ergonomic criteria. By integrating insights ranging from nano-scale mechanics up to whole-colony ecology, MechAnt will quantitatively link the mechanical properties of plants with the performance of individual foragers, the organisation of foraging parties, and the demography and social organisation of leaf-cutter ant colonies. The resulting understanding of the biomechanical innovations underpinning the success of the leaf-cutter ants will yield insights into the behavioural ecology of advanced plant-feeders, highlight the role of biomechanical constraints in the behaviour and evolution of herbivorous insects, and pave the way for the development of novel crop protection strategies.



Net EU contribution
€ 1 998 764,00
South kensington campus exhibition road
SW7 2AZ London
United Kingdom

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London Inner London — West Westminster
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Other funding
€ 0,00

Beneficiaries (1)