Ants Started Farming Millions of Years Before Humans

Fungus-farmers, like these leaf-cutter ants, have been engaging in "agriculture" for many millions of years. Bandwagon Man / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

We tend to think of humans as pretty special, superior in ability to all other animals. Take farming, for example. What other creature can do that?

Well, actually ants, and they beat us to it by millions of years. A study published on July 20 in the journal Nature Communications suggest that fungus-farming ants developed their own form of agriculture some 55 million to 60 million years ago, a much more ancient development than previously thought.

These ants, of which there are more than 200 species, chew up tiny pieces of leaves and take them back to their colony. There, in underground bunkers, a specific type of fungus breaks down the leaves and produces "fruiting bodies" full of protein that the insects eat.

In the paper, scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, University of Copenhagen and elsewhere analyzed the genomes of seven types of fungus-farming ants, which live in Central and South America. Their analysis found that the genes of the ants and the fungus began to change shortly after the demise of dinosaurs.

As the ants and fungus began to rely on each other, they each lost abilities that allowed them to survive apart. For example, the ants lost the ability to digest amino acids not found in the fungi-produced food; meanwhile, the fungus can no longer break down anything other than leaf material.

When the ants committed to farming, it "led to an evolutionary cascade of changes, unmatched by any other animal lineage studied so far," says Jacobus Boomsma, research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and biology professor at the University of Copenhagen, in a statement.

The same can't be said for humans. We are generally considered to be genetically the same (or at least very, very similar) to our ancestors who developed farming some 10,000 years ago.