Humans are not the only creatures on Earth that are known to use agriculture. In fact, they may have been beaten to the punch by a few millions years... by ants.
Ant colonies on the island of Fiji have been discovered growing their own tropical fruits. They harvest seeds from Squamellaria fruit plants, plant them, nurture them, and then eat and even live inside the fruits, making full use of their precious crop. In turn, the plants have been "domesticated" to the point where they can't grow on their own; they require their ant farmers to harvest them, reports New Scientist.
Of course, plant-animal symbiosis has been observed many times before, but this is the first time that it has evolved in a way that's analogous to the relationship between farmer and crop.
“Ants are a lot smarter than we think they are – we call them superorganisms because they form networks that are much like our brains,” said Kirsti Abbott at the University of New England, Australia. “The information flow among ant colonies is just insane compared to human social systems, so this finding does not surprise me in the slightest.”
The finding is a bit of a blow to the human ego. Humans first developed agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago, but these ants (Philidris nagasau) are believed to have begun farming around 3 million years ago.
The farming process that the ants undergo is surprisingly sophisticated. First, the insects insert seeds of the fruit in tree bark cracks. They then fertilize the crop (with their own feces) and carefully maintain it until the fruit grows. The fruit itself is a bulbous, wart-like ovary that dangles on tree trunks and branches. As it grows, the ants rely on the fruit's flesh for sustenance — but that's not all. Squamellaria fruit is also utilized as shelter.
Interestingly, Fiji might not be the only place in the world with agricultural ants. Australia, too, possesses ant populations that have been observed smothering certain fruits and other plants. Until now, no one had a good guess as to why the diminutive bugs seemed so attracted to some plants and not others. Could they be farming the plants as well? More research will be needed to know for sure, but it's certainly an intriguing question.