An international team of researchers, including Idaho State University’s Leif Tapanila, has discovered the oldest fossil evidence of agriculture, not by humans, but by insects.
The team, led by Associate Professor Eric Roberts from James Cook University in Australia, 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.
Researchers from Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Ohio University also participated in the project.
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.
“Termites are expert builders, and their tunnels and mounds leave a great fossil record,” said Tapanila, director of the Idaho Museum of Natural History and ISU associate professor of geology. Tapanila is an expert in ancient traces left by animals. “In this study we find nest construction identical to modern fungus-farming termites, an unprecedented behavior 30 million years ago.”
The research is part of a study focused on the evolution of a poorly known portion of the Great Rift Valley known as the Rukwa Rift, which has produced an array of unexpected geologic and palaeontologic discoveries in the past few years. It was published June 22 in the journal PLOS One. The study was funded by the US National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, James Cook University, Ohio University, Portugese Foundation for Science and Fellowship and a Marie Currie Fellowship.