Insects started farming 25 million years ago - long before humans.
Humans may have introduced many innovative ways when it comes to agriculture, but the oldest farmers in the world are actually insects.
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An international team of researchers has discovered the oldest fossil evidence of agriculture to date. The fossilized gardens, which are used by termites to harvest fungus, were uncovered in Great Rift Valley of Africa and date back to 25 million years, way before humans started cultivation.
Tiny termites are one of the most successful insect groups. They had evolved their fairly stable fungus farming systems a long time ago while our societies took tens of thousands of years to adopt this habit.
Previous studies had analyzed the DNA of modern termites to trace the evolutionary roots of their fungus farming and estimated that it started somewhere between 25 and 30 million years. But they have no physical evidence to support the theory. The latest findings provide a more accurate estimation of the evolution of termite’s fungus farming behavior.
“This discovery pushes back the beginning of the termite-fungus symbiotic relationship to at least 31 million years ago.” Paul Filmer from National Science Foundation (NSF), which funded the research said.
Termites get their nutrition by eating wood and their main source of energy is cellulose which is a very difficult substance to digest. Termites in Africa raise fungi to convert plant material into a more easily digestible food. In this system, both termites and fungi receive benefits as they form collaboration in order to survive.
“It captures a record of the evolutionary coupling of termites and fungus ... and allows us to trace back the antiquity of this symbiotic relationship. The new fossils help us to calibrate our evolutionary clocks and use them to better understand when this symbiosis first developed.” Lead researcher Eric Roberts from James Cook University told The Washington Post.
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Further researchers will be conducted on Great Rift Valley to understand more about the evolution of ancient termite farms.