7 Animals That Know How to Farm

Agricultural animals

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If there's one trait that distinguishes humans from animals, it's the ability to grow food.

But you might be surprised to learn that humans were not the first farmers. A number of astonishing animals discovered agriculture long before humans evolved as a species. There are insects that practice husbandry, fish that farm, and even a jellyfish horticulturalist.

Farming was once believed to be a feat reserved only for big-brained hairless apes, but it turns out that animals don't need a central nervous system to tend crops. Here's our list of seven amazing animal agriculturalists. (Text: Bryan Nelson)

Leaf-cutter ants

Photo: By watchara/Shutterstock

Because they have such a propensity to cut and gather leaves, it was long believed that these ants from Central and South America also ate the leaves they collected.

That all changed in 1874, when a mining engineer by the name of Thomas Belt (whose hobby was natural history) published "A Naturalist in Nicaragua." In the book, he wrote: "I believe the real use they make of them is as a manure, on which grows a minute species of fungus, on which they feed — that they are, in reality, mushroom growers and eaters."

Belt was correct. Leaf-cutter ants don't actually eat leaves. Instead, they gather leaves to cultivate a fungus that grows on them, and then they eat the fungus.

Termites

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Though considered household pests, termites form some of the most complex societies in the animal kingdom.

Much like leaf-cutter ants, many termite species are fungus gardeners. In fact, the gigantic mounds built by some termite colonies are complex, temperature-controlled structures essential for maintaining the ideal growing environment for their food source: fungus. A column of hot air rises above the mounds, driving air circulation currents inside the subterranean network. (Is the science behind your garden so intricate?)

Damselfish

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These feisty farmers are the only fish known to engage in agriculture. Damselfish are algae-growers, and they are so protective of their crops that they have been known to attack other creatures that swim too close — even human divers.

The algae they prefer is a species that is competitively weak, compared to other species. If it wasn't for such loyal tillers, the algae would be difficult to find. In fact, it tends to survive only within the protective territories of the damselfish.

Ambrosia beetles

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Named after the fungus they cultivate, ambrosia beetles are bark borers that grow their crops within decaying trees.

A common misconception is that these beetles eat the wood, but in reality they remove all the sawdust from their living areas. Once a chamber has been built, the beetles carefully tend to their crop, which feeds both adults and larvae.

Farmer ants

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Several ant species herd aphids in much the same way that humans herd cattle and take their milk. Instead of milk, however, aphids excrete a sugary honeydew that the ants devour.

Ants go to great lengths to care for their aphids, often training them to defecate in a way that makes it easier for the ants to gather and eat the honeydew. In fact, the well-trained aphids will often withhold their honeydew until they are stroked and "milked" by ants.

Even more fascinating, ants will typically carry their aphids to new pasture lands and protect them from predators. In extreme cases, ants will clip off the wings of their "domesticated" aphids to prevent them from flying away when they mature.

Marsh snails

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At least one type of mollusk is among nature's many fungiculturalists. Marsh snails (Littoraria irrorata), typically found throughout the Southeastern United States, prefer to feast on a fungus that grows on dead cordgrass leaves.

These clever snails use their rough, tongue-like radula to cut grooves into cordgrass leaves, creating the perfect growing environment for their favorite fungus.

The snails have been observed fertilizing their fields by defecating in the grooves, further helping the fungus grow.

Spotted jellyfish

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It may sound unbelievable, but even jellyfish can be farmers. These incredible medusae, also known as lagoon jellyfish, grow algal food inside their own tissues.

During the day, spotted jellyfish typically orient themselves to get maximum sunlight to ensure their photosynthetic crop will flourish. They spend most of their time chasing the sunlight and tending their internal gardens.