Ants were among the world’s first farmers | Science News


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50 Years Ago

Ants were among the world’s first farmers

Excerpt from the November 11, 1967 issue of Science News

11:00am, November 2, 2017
Atta laevigata

FOUNDING FARMERS  Leaf-cutter ants (Atta laevigata) cultivate a fungus garden in Brazil. Ant species belonging to this genus have been tending fungus gardens for some 60 million years.

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Fungus farmers

Finding the chemical basis for the close association between the Attine ants, inhabiting an area extending from Argentina to the southern United States, and the fungus they culture is the aim of research … by Prof. Michael M. Martin of the University of Michigan. Although many animals feed on fungi, the culturing of fungus by the Attine ants is the only known example of creatures growing their own. — Science News, November 11, 1967


Attine ants, a group of more than 200 species, began cultivating fungus “gardens” for food around 60 million years ago. Total codependence between the ants and fungi evolved around 30 million years ago, scientists wrote in April in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. During a global shift to a more arid climate with long seasonal dry periods, the moisture-loving fungi may have had a harder time surviving outside of ant-tended plots. Ants also became more dependent on fungi, losing, among other things, the ability to produce the amino acid arginine.


Science News Staff. Fungus farmers. Science News, Vol. 92, November 11, 1967.

M. Branstetter et al. Dry habitats were crucibles of domestication in the evolution of agriculture in ants. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Vol. 284, April 12, 2017. doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.0095.

Further Reading

S. Zielinski. Tiny ants move a ton of soil. Science News Online, July 20, 2016. 

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