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How much energy is needed to farm fungus?

August 25, 2014

How much energy is needed to farm fungus?

Leafcutter ants lead busy lives. Workers cut leaves and race along the superhighways they carve through the leaf litter in tropical forests

Leafcutter ants lead busy lives. Workers cut leaves and race along the superhighways they carve through the leaf litter in tropical forests. They carry leaf bits to massive underground cities where nestmates convert the plant matter into fertilizer for their fungus gardens. Domesticated fungi fuel bustling colonies of millions of ants.

“Growing fungus is a lot of work,” said Jonathan Shik, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Copenhagen and former graduate student in Mike Kaspari’s lab at the University of Oklahoma.

A new study in The American Naturalist by Shik and colleagues shows evolutionary transitions to higher metabolism as ants learned to cultivate fungi in big gardens. Shik’s respirometry experiments led to the first analysis of the energetic consequences of the transition from hunting to farming in ants. His research also lays the foundation for studies linking metabolism, farming efficiency and colony fitness.

Shik believes the extra effort required to farm fungi should translate into nutritional benefits. To identify these, he is now looking at a clade of fungus-farming ants called the lower attines. Leafcutters, or higher attines, arose some 12 million years ago. Their farming systems are derived from lower attines that adopted farming 50 million years ago. Lower attines have much smaller colonies and farm fungi grown from insect bodies and frass. “The lower attines can teach us why it was initially beneficial to stop hunting and start farming,” said Shik.

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