Sunday, 26 June 2016

Clever Ants “Created An Elaborate Farming System 25 Million Years Ago”

A termite mound in Queensland, Australia. Image courtesy of Dale Eaton, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Joel Kontinen

The Bible describes ants as very industrious creatures. ”Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!” Proverbs 6:6 (NIV) exhorts us.

This is no empty plea: Some ants are capable of building anthills that are over 9 metres (30 feet) high.

Taking their size into account, humans would have to erect buildings that are over 2 kilometres (1.25 miles) high to be able to compete with these clever builders.

Ants can make use of temperature differences in order to cool their mounts and use hi-tech to keep their body temperature bearable in a hot desert. They are also known to be good at mathematics and be able to build living rafts.

Now, a paper published in PLOS ONE suggests ants already used an elaborate farming system “25 million years ago”. The study looks at what we see termites doing in our time:

Termites are among the most diverse and ecologically important groups of insects in modern ecosystems, playing a critical role as natural decomposers of plant tissues. Termites typically rely on gut symbionts to decompose organic matter. However, members of the subfamily Macrotermitinae have turned to agriculture by developing a highly specialized, symbiotic relationship with fungi of the genus Termitomyces (Basidiomycotina). The fungus-growing termites cultivate fungi in gardens/chambers inside the colony and then exploit the ability of the fungi to convert recalcitrant, nitrogen-poor, plant material into a more easily digestible, protein-rich food source After ingestion and brief mastication of woody material, modern Macrotermitinae excrete rounded pellets known as primary faeces or mylospheres, composed of concentrated, undigested plant fragments and Termitomyces spores, which germinate and colonize the plant material, thus forming fungal gardens. The critical ecological role of fungus-growing termite colonies as biodiversity and bioproductivity hotspots within African savannah ecosystems has been well documented in recent years. Indeed, much of the decomposition of woody plant material in Africa and Asia takes place as a result of fungus-growing termites, with estimates suggesting that more than 90% of dry wood in some semiarid savannahs is reprocessed by members of the Macrotermitinae.

And then it suggests that ants were the first insect farmers. They haven’t changed their habits in the meanwhile.

What the paper doesn’t say is that ants challenge the very idea of Darwinian evolution: These intelligently made animals are living fossils that haven’t changed for “100 million years”.


Roberts, Eric M et al. 2016. Oligocene Termite Nests with In Situ Fungus Gardens from the Rukwa Rift Basin, Tanzania, Support a Paleogene African Origin for Insect Agriculture. PLOS ONE (22 June).