Farming Ants Arose After the Dinosaurs, and They’re the Best Farmers

A photo of two ants carrying leaves.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Genetics is fascinating. It allows us to learn a lot of things about plants and animals that we never would have understood otherwise. Take leaf-cutter ants in the tropical forests of Central America. Every day, they go out and harvest sections of leaves from nearby trees, then return those cuttings to their homes, where they use them to feed a type of fungus that they have had a long, symbiotic relationship with. The fungus, in turn, grows small protein-rich bulbs that the ants digest. Neither of them can live without the other; the fungus needs the leaves to grow, and the ants need the fungus to eat.

That didn’t happen on accident: the ants engineered it that way. About 60 million years ago, some ants gave up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle they had enjoyed and started eating fungus that lived off woody matter. Over time, both started to evolve alongside one another. About 25 million years ago, the fungi started to produce the tiny bulbs, which provided far more nutrients for the ants. The ant populations grew and the evolution sped up. About 15 million years ago, the leafcutter ants arose, and they became the efficient farmers they are today.

How efficient? They can sustain colonies with populations in the millions, and are the dominant herbivores in Neotropical forests. By contrast, humans have only been farming for about 10,000 years, and have only practiced industrial farming in the last century or so. If we were as smart as ants, we would have already developed a pest-resistant, disease-resistant, and drought-resistant superfood that could provide us with all the nutrients we need. Of course, we haven’t been around for anywhere near as long ants have, so we can probably go easy on ourselves for not being as good at farming as them.

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