Hey termites, we’re not so different, you and I. Termites are usually one of the banes of human existence, as they feed on dead matter — such as the wood that we use to build our homes — but they supersede humans in one interesting way: they have been farming for millions of years longer than humans.
A termite fungus garden. Courtesy James Cook University
According to a study published in PLOS One, scientists found fossils that indicate the earliest occurrence of insect agriculture within the termite subfamily Macrotermitinae, which harvested fungi “to convert recalcitrant, nitrogen-poor, plant material into a more easily digestible, protein-rich food source.” The age of those fossils? 25 to 30 million years old.
In comparison, humans have only been farming for around 12,000 years.
Paleontologists discovered the fossils near the Rukwa Rift Basin in southwestern Tanzania. They had originally used DNA from modern termites to estimate the age of insect agriculture, but the fossils discovered confirm it.
The findings help experts to understand how the insects have migrated, especially in Africa where they moved to drier, less favourable savannas. It also gives more insight into this area of Tanzania, which hasn’t been fully researched.
“This type of study emphasises 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,” said Patrick O’Connor, professor of anatomy at Ohio University and co-author on the study.
Personally, this just means we need to put in more effort in the war against termites.