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The world's oldest farmers were insects

Staff writer ▼ | July 2, 2016
The team, led by James Cook University's Associate Professor Eric Roberts, discovered the oldest known example of fungus gardens within fossil termite nests from the Great Rift Valley of Africa in 25 million year old sediments.
Termite nest
Ancient history   The initial development of the Great Rift Valley
Fungus farming termite colonies cultivate fungi in gardens in subterranean nests or chambers, helping to convert plant material into a more easily digestible food source for the termites.

Assoc Prof Roberts said that scientists had previously used DNA from modern termites to estimate the origin of termite 'fungus farming' behavior back to at least 25 to 30 million years ago.

This has now been confirmed using the new trace fossil evidence from Tanzania, allowing researchers to more accurately characterise the timing and evolution of this behaviour, something thought to have significantly modified the environment and landscape.

Patrick O'Connor, professor of anatomy at Ohio University, added "This type of study emphasizes the need for integrating perspectives from the fossil record with modern approaches in comparative biology--it is a holistic approach to evolutionary biology and significantly informs our understanding of environmental change in deep time."

Study co-author Associate Professor Duur Aanen from Wageningen University said that the transition to agriculture dramatically increased the range of possible habitats for both the fungus-growing termites and their domesticated fungi, very much like humans and their domesticated crops and livestock, tens of millions of years later.

While the cradle of termite agriculture presumably was in an African rainforest, the transition to fungiculture helped the termites to disperse to less favorable dry savannas and also out-of-Africa migrations into Asia.

Assoc Prof Roberts added, "The phenomenon might have been triggered by the initial development of the Great Rift Valley in this part of eastern Africa, and the dramatic transformation of the landscape around this time."


 

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