Were Ants the World’s First Farmers?

Jackson Landers in Smithsonian:

Attaqueennest1cropt1web_jpg__800x600_q85_cropHumans have been practicing agriculture for about 10,000 years. But the attine ants of South America (which include the well-known leafcutters) have us beat by a long way. According to a new paper co-authored by entomologist Ted Schultz, curator of ants at Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, attine ants, which farm on an industrial scale similar to humans, have been carefully cultivating gardens with a complex division of labor to grow an edible fungus. Schultz's team found that the ants have been doing this far longer than previously believed—up to 65 million years—and that we have much to learn from them. Schultz and his co-authors, led by by Sanne Nygaard, Guojie Zhang and Jacobus Boomsma of the University of Copenhagen, conducted an analysis of the genomes of the various species of attine ants as well as the fungus that they cultivate. Their results answer some long-standing evolutionary questions. The 210 species of attine ants, including the 47 species of leafcutters, forage through the forests of Central and South America in search of leaves and other vegetation, which they carve into pieces using their powerful jaws and carry back to their nests. But they never eat the leaves directly. The plant matter is used as a growth medium for certain varieties of edible fungi which Schultz's team says have been cultivated and passed on by generations of ants going back tens of millions of years.

…Humans may have important lessons to learn from the attine ants. We have struggled to protect the survival of our crops for only about 10,000 years. “We're constantly coming up with herbicides or antibiotics to control pests. And the pests are constantly evolving countermeasures against those things,” Schultz says. The most economically important variety of banana became functionally extinct in the 1960's and another variety is heading in the same direction. “Somehow this system with the ants has been in an equilibrium for millions of years,” he adds.

More here.