Little did you know that humans were not the first farmers. A lineage of ants based in South America has been known to cultivate their own food using a selective process that produces a high-yield fungus. Now researchers have found that not only have these ants been doing this for the greater part of 50 million years, but they have actually improved the practice over time.
That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Nature Communications, which details how these ants are not unlike human farmers, who have been tweaking and improving the traits of their domestic crops for the last 10,000 years.
A team of researchers at the Universities of Copenhagen and Lund describe how these ants have not only improved their crops, but how they farm as well. While humanity has turned to advanced mechanisms and improved strategy to improve farming, these ants simply evolved.
According to the study, the ants in question - known as "leafcutters" - will collect local leaves, having developed a broad range of fungal enzymes to degrade the harvest into optimal leaf fragments, which fungus can then be grown from. This fungus likewise appears to have adapted to serve the ants, producing clusters of inflated food-packages that contain carbohydrates, lipids, enzymes, and vital amino acids that satisfy all the nutritious needs of the ant farmers and their brood.
"No other fungus has evolved such organs because they are only meaningful when you rely on farmers," the study's first author, Henrik De Fine Licht, explained in a statement. "This is similar to cultivated wheat varieties that no longer drop their seeds because humans only propagated lineages that allowed them to harvest the spikes rather than having to pick up the seeds one by one."
Interestingly, evidence indicates that while these farming ants began their work around 50 million years ago, the food-package adaptation first showed up a mere 20 million years ago.
"Although it took ages of slow natural selection, today's ant farms are [about] 100,000 times larger than those of the first ancestors that invented farming," Licht added.
The researcher and his colleagues argue that this far slower pace of agricultural selection is what sets the ants apart from human farmers, where the improvements may have been born more of a kind of forced "symbiotic matrimony," than active crop selection.
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