7 Animals That Know How to Farm

ant on strawberry while farmer holds another strawberry and examines it.

Antrey / istockphoto / Getty Images

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 jellyfish horticulturalists.

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.

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Leaf-Cutter Ants

leaf cutter ants walking on twig. The ant on the upper side of the twig is holding a large piece of leaf in its mouth

watchara / Shutterstock

Leaf-cutter ants aren't just farmers; they are factory farmers. They gather leaves to cultivate a fungus that grows on the leaves. Leaf-cutter ants protect the crops from pests and mold. They then feed the fungus, not the leaves, to their larvae. Many people believed these ants from Central and South America ate the leaves they collected. Instead, they farm and sometimes, like humans, have difficulty with crop failures.

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Termite mound as big as a tree on the African savannah

David Siu / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Much like leaf-cutter ants, many termite species are fungus farmers. The gigantic mounds built by some termite colonies are complex, temperature-controlled structures. These structures are essential for maintaining the ideal growing environment for their fungal food source. The termites start by chewing the plant material and feeding it to the fungus. The fungus then grows into mushrooms, creating a food source for the termites.

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

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blue damselfish farming algae in green water

Greg Grimes / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

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

The algae they prefer is a species that is weak and quickly over-grazed, compared to other species of algae. If it weren't for such dedicated farmers, the algae would be challenging to find. It tends to survive only within the protective territories of the damselfish.

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Ambrosia Beetles

Ambrosia beetles, Xyleborus cryptographus on aspen wood
Henrik_L / Getty Images

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. In reality, they bore through the wood and introduce the ambrosia fungi that they eat. Once a chamber is complete, the beetles carefully tend to their crop, which feeds both adults and larvae. The beetles often leave a ring of what looks like sawdust around the tree as they push the wood shavings out of the holes they bore.

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ants farming aphids

Joshua McMichael / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Several ant species herd aphids in much the same way that humans keep cattle for milk. Instead of milk, aphids excrete a sugary liquid called 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 their domesticated aphids' wings to prevent them from flying away when they mature. They even encourage a mix of aphids, so they have a balance between types.

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Marsh Periwinkles

marsh periwinkle snails farming fungus on marsh grass

Mary Hollinger, NESDIS/NODC biologist, NOAA / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Marsh periwinkles (Littoraria irrorata), a type of snail typically found throughout the Southeastern United States, prefer to feast on a fungus that they farm in wounds on cordgrass leaves.

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

Scientists have even spotted snails have fertilizing their fields by defecating in the grooves, further helping the fungus grow.

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Spotted Jellies

golden brown lagoon jellies upside down in order to farm algae in their tentacles

Brian Gratwicke / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Spotted jellies, also known as lagoon jellies, grow algae food inside their tissues.

During the day, spotted jellies typically orient themselves bell side down and tentacles up. This position ensures the photosynthetic crop in their tentacles gets enough light. They spend most of their time chasing the daylight and tending their internal gardens.

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Yeti Crab

Male yeti crab all white with bristly legs and claws

Shane Ahyong / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.5

Yeti crabs farm bacteria on their hairy claws. Geological researchers found the crabs when looking for methane seeps in the ocean off of Costa Rica; the bacteria get their energy from the inorganic gases coming from sea vents. The crabs wave their claws to create movement in the water — this, in turn, feeds the bacteria with the oxygen and sulfide it needs to grow. When the crab is ready to eat, it uses comblike mouthparts to harvest its meal from the bristles.