Agricultural Origin Story

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Various species of ants engage in some kind of agriculture. Here, a leaf-cutter ant gathers food for its fungus farm. Mark Bowler/Science Source

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA):

Who Invented Agriculture First? It Sure Wasn’t Humans

Ants in Fiji farm plants and fertilize them with their poop. And they’ve been doing this for 3 million years, much longer than humans, who began experimenting with farming about 12,000 years ago.

You may think of ants as picnic pilferers. After all, who hasn’t had to ward off ants stealing crumbs from picnic tables or hoarding tiny pieces of food from kitchens? But a new study shows that they’re in fact hard working farmers. Or at least one species of ants is. It lives in Fiji and has been farming plants for some 3 million years.

The ant in question is Philidris nagasau, an ordinary looking, small, black ant. It lives in and eats Squamellaria, a plant that grows in the cracks and elbows of different kinds of trees. The Squamellaria plant, which looks more like a fungus, forms lumpy, brown, bulbous protrusions from the branches of the trees it lives on.

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A ‘field’ of Squamellaria plants in a Macaranga tree farmed by a colony of Philidris nagasau ants. The tree overlooks the Fijian archipelago at sunset on Taveuni island. Nature

The new study, published in Nature Plants, shows that these ants not only live inside these hollow plants, they also farm them.

I first noticed the relationship when I saw dozens of these ant-filled plants clustered in the same trees, says Guillaume Chomicki, a botanist at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich and the lead author on the study. He saw ants from a single colony moving back and forth between the plants they lived in…

Read the whole story here.

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