Myrmecovory in Neotropical primates

Primates. 2021 Nov;62(6):871-877. doi: 10.1007/s10329-021-00946-2. Epub 2021 Sep 29.


Ants are the dominant group of animals in many habitats, particularly in tropical rainforests. High abundance and formation of large colonies convert them into a potential food source for a broad spectrum of animals. In this paper we review myrmecovory (consumption of ants) in Neotropical primates. Myrmecovory has been reported from 57 taxa (species + subspecies) out of 217 species of Neotropical primates, representing 18 out of 22 genera. The proportion of ants in the animal portion of the diet is highest amongst members of the genera Cebus, Sapajus, Cheracebus and Plecturocebus, but generally low in callitrichids, large pitheciids (Cacajao, Chiropotes) and atelids. Ants from seven subfamilies of Formicidae (out of 13 subfamilies found in the Neotropics) are consumed, including taxa with and without functional sting and with varying other defences. Foraging technics employed in myrmecovory range from picking ants from open substrates to extractive foraging involving the destruction of ant nests or shelters, but tool use has not been reported. We conclude that myrmecovory is widespread amongst Neotropical primates but on average contributes only a minor proportion of the diet. The diversity of foraging technics employed and lack of tool use in Neotropical primate myrmecovory, even for ants with functional stings and aggressive biting, suggests that tool use for myrmecovory in hominids has not evolved in response to ant defences but is a consequence of enhanced cognitive skills that evolved under other selection pressures.

Keywords: Ant defences; Foraging technics; Formicidae; Insectivory; Platyrrhini; Predation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ants*
  • Diet
  • Ecosystem
  • Pitheciidae*