Researchers found that Fiji ants have been engaging in agricultural practices for over 3 million years. According to a recently published paper, the insects have been farming their favorite food, the Squamellaria plant, while also using it as a home.
The Fiji ants, or the Philidris nagasau, a small, black species of ants, have developed a special taste for the bulbous plant. The Squamellaria is usually found in the cracks of various indigenous trees, and its lumpy protrusions are a perfect source of both food and shelter.
The paper, which was published in the latest issue of the Nature Plants magazine, shows evidence that the ants have a habit of farming their favorite plant, making sure that they have enough resources.
Guillaume Chomicki, the lead author of the paper and botanist at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians University, declared that he first saw a connection between the ants and the plants when he noticed that most Squamellaria specimens that he encountered were swarming with small black ants.
After spending more time analyzing the behavior of the Fiji ants, Chomicki discovered that the insects have a complex relation with the plant. It seems like, in order to make sure that they have enough food reserves, the ants farm the plants.
The ants collect the seeds from the plant’s fruits, leave them in small tree cracks, and then fertilize them with their feces. Once the plant grows and starts producing fruits, the process begins again.
Chomicki also discovered that the ants do not live in any other plant, concluding that the two are in an interdependent relation.
According to Brian Fisher, entomologist, this is the first case of voluntary plant farming among insects. Leaf-cutter ants, for example, also farm their food, but they have developed a taste for fungus, not plants.
“We already have plants that disperse seeds, and have ants that feed plants, but we’ve never had a case where they farm a plant they can’t live without,” Fisher declared.
The entomologist also declared that ants are responsible for dispersing over 40 percent of all plants from the Northeastern region of the United States. Moreover, their fecal matter is one of the best plant fertilizers in the world.
Other ants have developed special relationships with other critters. The Acropyga ants live in a symbiotic relation with the mealybugs. The ants feast on the bugs’ honeydew, and in exchange for the food, they carry the mealybugs wherever they go, thus ensuring the species survival.
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