Scientists are amazed to discover that the Fijian Ants were the first farmers in the world. Apparently, they have been sowing, fertilizing and growing plants for about three million years. But what is more surprising is that they grow them because they need them to live.

Guillaume Chomicki and Susanne Renner, researchers from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat Munchen, have been studying ants for a long time. Recently they’ve been tracking the Fijian Ants for a recent study in Nature Plants. They knew that the ants live in hollow structures but what they didn’t know was that these structures, called domatia, were grown by the Fijian ants themselves.

About 700 types of plants give shelter to ants in their domatia, so it is not the first time ants grow or live in plants. Image Credit: NPR

“The story is unique…We already have ants 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,”Brian Fisher, entomologist-in-residence at the California Academy of Sciences, said.

Ants: Curious and complex species 

Ants are among the most amazing and more analyzed insects in the world. Around 12,500 ant species have been identified, though scientists estimate that there could be about 22,000 ant species in total.

Ants are really organized creatures; they live in colonies of different sizes. They also have a social structure that determines the specific functions each one of them is going to have, meaning they have a division of labor. They could be queen, drone, worker or soldier ants and collectively support the colony.

Ants are present in almost every part of the world, as well, they have developed with other species mimetic, commensal parasitic, and symbiotic relationships.

For these reasons, the ants continue to be one of the most studied species today. Scientists have discovered ants that help growing other plants, such as the leafcutter ants, which has farm fungus for about eight million years.

Through an analysis of a fossilized Acropyga ant, scientists discovered that that species has been growing mealybugs during 15 to 20 million years. So definitely, the Fijian ants are not the first type of ant to help to grow and to sow other species.

A symbiotic relationship 

However, according to the new research, Fijian ants have developed a symbiotic relationship with other forms of live surrounding them. The philidris nagassau, which is the scientific name of the Fijian ants, sow, nurture, and take care of the squamellaria plants because they need them to live.

Therefore, this was big news for the scientists because it becomes the only (known) animal-plant relationship where the plant and the animal depend on each other for their survival. The plant needs the Fijian ants to grow, and the ants need the Squamellaria plants for shelter and alimentation.

The squamellaria is a plant that grows on other plants. The Fijian worker ants carry the seed from the already-grown plants on the trees and plant it on a tree with a soft bark, so it would be easier for them to seed it. Later, they monitor the seeds keeping herbivores away.

Once they are growing they develop their domatia on the base of the plant. The ants continue to fertilize it to it keeps growing. When the domatia of the Squamellaria plants are big enough, ants move in. They also eat the fruit of the squamellaria and use them to harvest the seed of it again for other plants.

Researchers said that they saw ants in every single domatia of Squamellaria they checked.

Source: The Christian Science Monitor