COPENHAGEN, Denmark, Dec. 10 (UPI) -- Humans think they're so smart, with their fancy farms. But while humans have been cultivating crops for a little more than 10,000 years, ants have been growing their own food for 50 million years.
New research by entemologists at the University of Copenhagen, in Denmark, the University of Lund, in Sweden, reveals that a lineage of South American leaf-cutting ants use fungal enzymes to break down leaf fragments.
The ant-built fungus garden -- fed by leaf debris -- produces clusters of inflated food packages. These packages feature carbohydrates, lipids, fungal enzymes and vital amino, an amalgamation of all the ant's nutritional necessities. While the leaf-cutting ants started small, with just minimal patches of sustenance farming, they've evolved to employ their leaf-cutting, fungal-growing techniques on a large scale.
"Although it took ages of slow natural selection, today's ant farms are ca. 100,000 times larger than those of the first ancestors that invented farming," study co-author Henrik De Fine Licht said in a press release.
Because their farming operations have become so efficient, researchers say the ants have lost the ability to produce a few things, some enzymes and vital amino acids, on their own.
"It is as if the farming ant families and their underground gardens have become single organisms where queen, nurses, foragers, brood and fungus are connected in a huge interaction network," said Licht.
The study was published this week in the journal Nature Communications.