3M Years Before Humans, Ants Were Farmers

Fijian ants have long built farming cities to plant and harvest fruit crops
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 27, 2016 2:30 PM CST
3M Years Before Humans, Ants Were Farmers
Ants are known scavengers; here they devour a piece of junk food in Durham, NC. But new research suggests they're also highly skilled farmers, and have been for millions of years.   (AP Photo/YourWildLife.org, Lauren Nichols)

If the emergence of agrarian practices is seen as a mark of intelligence in humans, then ants can boast some serious smarts. Not only have researchers discovered a highly organized type of farming in Fiji ants—who plant the seeds of fruit trees, fertilize and protect them, harvest the resulting fruits, and collect seeds for future plantings—but they report in the journal Nature Plants that the techniques date back 3 million years. Humans, by contrast, didn't begin to sort out how to plant and harvest crops until around 23,000 years ago, reports the Los Angeles Times. While farming has been observed in other species, including Yeti crabs that cultivate bacteria and sloths that grow algae gardens on their fur, this is the first time ants have been found to farm plants rather than fungus.

"Ants are a lot smarter than we think they are," one researcher tells New Scientist. "We call them superorganisms because they form networks that are much like our brains. The information flow among ant colonies is just insane compared to human social systems." The researchers out of the University of Munich in Germany say they discovered that ant colonies have been seen farming dozens of Squamellaria plants simultaneously, all connected through trails that link the thriving domatia, which are round, hollow structures they form at the base of the fruit trees in lieu of nests. What's more, it appears that the ants and trees have evolved to be co-dependent; without the trees, the ants starve, and without the ants, the trees no longer propagate. (Like humans, ants also use toilets.)

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