Ant agricultural revolution began 30 million years ago in dry, desert-like climate
Millions of years before humans discovered agriculture, vast farming systems were thriving beneath the surface of the Earth. The subterranean farms, which produced various types of fungi, were cultivated and maintained by colonies of ants, whose descendants continue practicing agriculture today.
In the Proceedings of Royal Society B, scientists led by entomologist Ted Schultz, the museum's curator of ants, report that the transition likely occurred when farming ants began living in dry climates, where moisture-loving fungi could not survive on their own. The finding comes from a genetic analysis that charts the evolutionary relationships of farming and non-farming ants from wet and dry habitats throughout the Neotropics.
About 250 species of fungus-farming ants have been found in tropical forests, deserts and grasslands in the Americas and the Caribbean, and these species fall into two different groups based on the level of complexity of their farming societies: lower and higher agriculture. All farming ants start new fungal gardens when a queen's daughter leaves her mother's nest to go off and found her own nest, taking with her a piece of the original colony's fungus to start the next colony's farm.
In the lower, primitive forms of ant agriculture -- which largely occur in wet rain forests -- fungal crops occasionally escape from their ant colonies and return to the wild. Lower ants also occasionally regather their farmed fungi from the wild and bring them back to their nests to replace faltering crops. These processes allow wild and cultivated fungi to interbreed and limit the degree of influence the lower ants have over the evolution of their crops.
"These higher agricultural-ant societies have been practicing sustainable, industrial-scale agriculture for millions of years," Schultz said. "Studying their dynamics and how their relationships with their fungal partners have evolved may offer important lessons to inform our own challenges with our agricultural practices. Ants have established a form of agriculture that provides all the nourishment needed for their societies using a single crop that is resistant to disease, pests and droughts at a scale and level of efficiency that rivals human agriculture."
Today, many agricultural ant species are threatened by habitat destruction, and as part of his studies, Schultz has been collecting specimens from the field and preserving them in the museum's cryogenic biorepository for future genomic studies. In the current study, he and his colleagues compared the genomes of 119 modern ant species, most of which were collected during his decades of field expeditions.
Using powerful new genomic tools, the scientists compared DNA sequences at each of more than 1,500 genome sites for 78 fungus-farming species and 41 non-fungus-farming species. Their data-rich analysis gave the team a great deal of confidence in the evolutionary relationships they were able to map, Schultz said.
According to the evolutionary tree they constructed, the first ants to transition to higher agriculture likely lived in a dry or seasonally dry climate. The transition appears to have occurred around 30 million years ago -- a time when the planet was cooling, and dry areas were becoming more prevalent.
Fungi that had evolved to live in wet forests would have been poorly equipped to survive independently in this changing climate. "But if your ant farmer evolves to be better at living in a dry habitat, and it brings you along and it sees to all your needs, then you're going to be doing okay," Schultz said.
Just as humans living in a dry or temperate climate might raise tropical plants in a greenhouse, agricultural ants carefully maintain the humidity within their fungal gardens. "If things are getting a little too dry, the ants go out and get water and they add it," Schultz said. "If they're too wet, they do the opposite." So even when conditions above the surface become inhospitable, fungi can thrive inside the underground, climate-controlled chambers of an agricultural ant colony.
In this situation, fungi can become dependent on their ant farmers -- unable to escape the nest and return to the wild. "If you've been carried into a dry habitat, your fate is going to match the fate of the colony you're in," Schultz said. "At that point, you're bound in a relationship with those ants that you were not bound in when you were in a wet forest."
Schultz said the conditions present during this evolutionary transition illustrate how an organism can become domesticated even if its farmers are not consciously selecting for desirable traits as human breeders might do. Ants that moved their fungi into new habitats would have isolated the organism from its wild relatives, just as humans do when they domesticate a crop. This isolation creates an opportunity for the farmed species to evolve independently from species in the wild, adopting new traits.
Funding for this study was provided by the Smithsonian and the National Science Foundation.
Source: Smithsonian [April 11, 2017]