Musings on Nature

Ants and Agriculture

People like to find things that make us unique among animals.  Anthropologists seem to have settled on three main features that distinguish us from the rest of the animals: we use tools, we think and speak symbolically, and we have developed agriculture.  However, in the 1960s, Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees using sticks as tools to fish termites out of their nests.  So now we have to say that we are unique because we make and use the best tools.  As for symbolic thinking and language, there is evidence that apes are also capable, and we are left saying that we are still the best at it.

What is left, thus far unchallenged by the apes, is agriculture.  To select, tend, and maintain crops or livestock requires a fair amount of sophistication.  Agriculture was the basis for civilization; it allowed people to build cities.  It shapes the evolution of domesticated species.  Surely no other animal can do those things.

As far as we know, humans are the only species of mammal to have developed agriculture, but this behavior is not unique in the wider animal kingdom.  There are actually hundreds of species of fungus-growing ants—ants—that grow and tend to their own food source in what can only be rightfully recognized as farming.  These species include the leafcutter ants, which collect leaves and other plant material to bring back into their nests.  They cut the plants into tiny pieces, adding saliva and feces, and they use the resulting mixture as food for the fungus they grow and eat.  The ants prune the fungus as it grows, and they even remove pathogens from them.  The fungi are so dependent on their farmers for care that the fungal species have not been found outside of these leafcutter gardens.  Surely, this is agriculture.  I guess you could argue that we have “better” agriculture than ants, but isn’t it amazing that ants have agriculture?

If it is important to you to be able to list qualities that make people different than other animals, carry on.  But know that they might be steadily debunked by the behavior or apes or ants. Don’t be disappointed; stop for a moment and revel in the fact that we are not alone.

Interesting links:

A BBC article about slave-making ants:

Are humans unique?

Do animals think?


Bass, M. & Cherrett, J.M. 1996. Leaf-cutting ants (Formicidae, Anttini) prune their fungus to increase and direct its productivity. Functional Ecology 10:1, 55-61.

Currie, C.R., & Stuart, A.E. 2001.  Weeding and grooming of pathogens in agriculture by ants. The Royal Society 268, 1033-1039.

Shipman, P. 2010. The animal connection and human evolution. Current Anthropology 51:4, p1-19.

Sabbatini, R.M.E. 2003. Do animals think?, accessed 3/2012



  1. Bobby

    Great post

  2. Cornelia Harris

    I’ve been thinking recently about how agriculture, even ancient farming, is really just a form of ecosystem engineering. However, we are now tinkering on a very grand scale with our ecosystems, much of it under the guise of needing food to support the growing human population. I wonder what the conversation would be like if we were more aware and in tune with the ecosystems around us; can ‘sustainable ag’ really support everyone on earth? What if we cut down on the 40% of the food that we waste…?

  3. Beverly Goldfield

    HI Emily, I never knew that ants FARMED!!! … but do they garden????

  4. Kedidia Mossi

    Thanks Emily- Very interesting…Anthills are sacred in some parts of Africa and the mud gathered from large anthills is considered best for making mud bricks in Niger. Maybe part of the added value comes from the result of the fungi they grow….

  5. emilytstarr

    Thanks for your comment, Kedidia. I didn’t know that.

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