A new study reveals that the Fijian ants have the longest history of farming on record. According to scientists, the tiny creatures began farming at least three million years ago and still didn’t give up the practice.
The Fijian ants, officially known as Philidris Nagasau have been growing and harvesting the fruits of Squamellaria plants since the Pliocene. A detailed study of the Fijian ants’ relationship to the Squamellaria has been published in great detail in the Nature journal by a team of researchers.
The plant serves as the main source of both food and shelter for the Fijian ants. Furthermore, it is more closely related to lichen species which grow in tree cavities or crevices in the bark. Besides feasting on its delicious fruits, the ants also live in the domatia, the Squamellaria’s hollow structures.
Brian Fisher is a researcher and entomologist for the California Academy of Sciences. He says that the scientists were already aware of ant species specialized in feeding plants or dispersing seeds. However, up until recently, they did not know about ant species capable of growing essential plants to ensure survival.
“The story is unique”, says Brian Fisher.
Scientists were aware of several ant species capable of using a wide range of fungus and mealybugs for shelter. However, the Fijian ants involve themselves in the plant’s growing process and care for their crops until the fruits are ready to harvest.
Through close observation, the researchers were able to identify the steps that Fijian ants use to plant and grow the Squamellaria. First, the Philidris Nagasau colony carries the seeds from adult plants and lodge them in soft bark forming on young trees. Next, the Fijian ants protect their crops from pests and use various fertilizers for the Squamellaria plants.
When the time comes, the Fijian ants harvest the fruits and feast on them. According to the researchers, a single Squamellaria plant can sustain up to 12 colonies. Furthermore, the ants plant multiple plants on a tree, with each Squamellaria plant feeding a single colony. Moreover, the ants use special “highways” that connect each colony with its life-supporting plant. Also, according to a statement given out by a researcher from the University of Munich, Guillaume Chomicki, the queen’s nest is located right at the core of the whole system.
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