It’s sometimes easy to forget that as humans, we’re not the only technologically-capable species present on Earth at the moment: many of our animal brethren make and use tools to shape their immediate environment, such as birds building nests as structures to raise their young in, beavers building dams to flood areas for security from predators, prairie dogs possessing a language that contains a vocabulary of hundreds of words, and chimpanzees shaping sticks to dig and hunt for ants.
The subfamily of termites known as Macrotermitinae are no exception: in addition to building mounds for their colonies to live in, they also cultivate and grow fungi in their nests, essentially a form of agriculture, that is used to break down plant material into food that is easier for them to digest. And it turns out that these termites have been doing this for a long, long time, to the tune of at least 25 million years.
A new study, conducted by researchers from James Cook University and Ohio State University, has found fossilized termite nests in Tanzania that hold the petrified remains of six to seven fungus chambers, and three fungus gardens. The mounds have been dated to 25 to 30 million years ago, over 100 times longer than modern humans are supposed to have even existed.
And much like human agriculture, the researchers believe that Macrotermitinae’s cultivation of their fungus allowed them to expand into environments that would otherwise be inaccessible to them, as well as the probability that this activity helped shape the African savannah as we know it today. As study co-author Nancy Stevens explains, “The origin of this behavior likely had a profound effect on how nutrients were concentrated across the landscape, influencing the evolution of Africa’s biota.”