Agricultural Behavior in Non-Human Animals

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Humans began farming around 10,000 years ago and domesticating animals before that. Ants, on the other hand, have been farming fungi for about 60 million years. Human agriculture includes a wide variety of plants, animals, fungi, etc. Non-human farmers typically specialize in one food source. This farming is a mutualism between the two species, and this is typically an obligate mutualism in which the producer cannot survive without the farming by the other species. The farmer too cannot survive without the other species. Examples of farming can be found all across the animal kingdom.

Photo by: Duncan Hull. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

As of now there are about 240 species of ants that farm fungus,, from the ant families: Myrmicinae, Attini and Attina. One example of such fungal farming ants being the leaf-cutter ant which cuts leaves to use as nourishment for the fungus they grow. This is a common technique used by the ant fungal farmers, they bring nutrients in the form of chewed bits of vegetation. Interestingly, the fungi that are grown by the ants are only found in the fungal farms made by the ants. Additionally, the fungi are grown in complete isolation, with no genetic input from other populations.

 

 

 

 

 

By viamoi [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
There are other species of ants that actually herd aphids which they extract honeydew from. This is too a mutualism, where the aphids get protection from predation, parasitism, and fungal infection in exchange for the honeydew they produce. When populations of aphids are close together they compete for the services of the ants. Some studies have found that the ants manipulate the aphids to prevent them from leaving. They can cut their wings and even use chemicals to stunt aphid wing growth and slow movement. In some cases the aphids are eaten.

 

 

 

 

Another example of fungal farming in the class insecta comes from the wood-boring beetles, in which fungal farming evolved independently 11 times.

Hulcr at the English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons
There are about 3,200 species of ambrosia beetles that farm fungi. Ambrosia beetles are beetles which have formed a mutualism with the ambrosia fungus. Instead of farming the fungus underground, like the ant fungal farmers, ambrosia beetles make their farms in dead trees. The fungus that the ambrosia beetle feeds on is either a fungus that feeds on already dead trees or is a lethal parasite to living trees. For the parasitic fungi, the ambrosia beetle will bore into the living tree and introduce the fungus. This makes it a huge problem in areas where it is not native.

 

 

 

 

Now moving to another phyla of the invertebrates, there are fungal farmers in the phylum mollusca.

By Mary Hollinger, NESDIS/NODC biologist, NOAA. (NOAA Photo Library: line2637Uploaded by JoJan) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The aquatic gastropod Littoraria irrorata has an obligate mutualism with the Phaeosphaeria and Mycosphaerella Ascomycota fungi. The snails will use their radula to cut into the salt marsh cordgrass. The fungi can grow on the plant, but with the radulations the fungi get much more nutritional content from the inside of the plant. To farther help the fungal growth, the snails will defecate on the wounds they make. The snails will also defecate while they graze, so as they eat the fungi they promote their growth. This mutualism is only obligate regarding the snail, where if the fungal biomass was negligible snail growth was negligible. Additionally, in the experiment where fungal biomass was negligible, 48% of the snail juveniles died. On the other hand, the fungus can grow without the help of the snails, but their actions due significantly increase their growth. A facultative mutualism.

 

 

Staying in the water, there is a fish belonging to the anemonefishes that live in the coral reefs of the Ryukyu archipelago.

By USGS – Individual photographer uncredited by source. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The damselfishes are a highly aggressive very colorful group of fish which create gardens of algae which they protect. They even attack divers that get too close, they do not do much damage as their largest members usually do not exceed 6 inches. This relationship between the algae and the damselfish in an obligate mutualism for both of the species. The damselfish exclusively eat the algae and the algae would not survive without the protection of the fish. In the case of the dusky farmerfish, it protects gardens of red algae that does not grow outside of the gardens created by the dusky farmerfish. Damselfish generally only eat red algae and the type it eats varies between species. The red algae are not great competitors and would be quickly outcompeted by other types of algae. The damselfish will weed out other types of algae in their gardens which prevents competition.

 

 

 

There are other animals that have a form of agriculture including Kiwa puravida a type of yeti crab, named so because of its bristly arms, cultivate bacteria on the bristles which it eats. This organism was discovered in 2006 near seeps on the ocean floor that release methane and hydrogen sulphide gas. The first species of the yeti crabs was discovered earlier that year near a hydro thermal vent. There are likely many more animals that practice some form of agriculture, we may have yet to discover some of them.

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