Gardeners of the Animal Kingdom

Green fingers, claws, and mandibles

As the only animal that has managed to escape from the food chain, humans have had the opportunity and freedom to develop all sorts of interesting ways to fill our time now that it’s not taken up by escaping predators.

Outside of the time we devote to work, we’ve cultivated a near-infinite variety of hobbies and many of them are purely human inventions. Gardening, however, is not one of them.

That’s right there are actually many different species of animals that, in some way, cultivate the natural world for their own benefit. In fact, many of them have been doing it for so long that their very survival now depends on these shared relationships with our planet.

We’ll explore a few of these non-human gardeners today and some of the innovative and alien methods they’ve used to bring the outside into their inner worlds.

Non-human gardeners

Landscapers in their thousands

Although humans have been cultivating plants for food for approximately 12,000 milennia, ants have us beat by about 49 million years – specifically leaf-cutter ants, although their sub-species only emerged about 10 million years ago.

That only makes them twice as old as the earliest hominin ancestor, predating both Homo sapiens and Homo erectus!

The leaf-cutter ant has huge populations throughout South and Central America as well as across the southern United States. Their claim to horticultural fame comes from a symbiotic relationship they share with certain species of fungus, surrounding trees and other plants.

An average colony contains about 8 million individuals and its cadre of specialised ‘harvesters’ can strip an entire citrus tree to its stem in a single day.

These collectors then return the chopped-up leaf fragments to the colony where another team goes about mulching them down to even smaller pieces which are then fed to the fungus that grows in their nest.

While the adult ants feed on sap directly from the leaves, the ant queen lays her eggs in this fungal mulch which then feeds the larvae when they hatch.

Gods of the underworld

Although they do exist across every continent but Antarctica, termites are not a common sight here in the U.K. However, their mounds are scattered all over Africa and South America to the point that they have achieved notable cultural significance in many of the places they are found.

Their impact on mythology and spirituality is particularly felt in Africa where they have been found to have specific cultural references across dozens of ethnic groups in 27 countries.

Termites are known for their voracious appetite for woody plants – much to the chagrin of some unfortunate homeowners. However, this hunger is responsible for digesting and recycling much of the world’s plant-based biomass, particularly in the tropics where termites themselves account for 10% of all biomass.

Similarly to leaf-cutter ants, they are able to digest all this lumber by collaborating with a type of fungus and by farming wood they can convert it into food using the fungus-coated combs of their hives.

Zen mastery at 20,000 leagues

Pufferfish are an interesting addition to this list because their style of gardening involves no plants or fungus but ends up reflecting the motifs you can find in eastern zen gardens.

In order to find a mate, male pufferfish have to make an impression on their would-be partner and to do this they carve intricate symmetrical patterns in the sand of the ocean floor. These concentric channels can reach up to two metres in diameter and at their centre lies a small hole for approving females to lay their eggs in.

One with their food

Another denizen of the deep, Yeti Crabs have a particularly unique relationship with their food in that they grow it and farm it on their bodies. Researchers documenting these crustaceans off the coast of Costa Rica found that they had an attraction to certain hydrothermal vents that spewed out oxygen, sulphide, and heat.

It turns out that these crabs were fertilizing the bacteria that gathered on their claws by feeding them the elements being expelled from the vents and allowing their population to multiply.

Once the bacteria populations grow large enough, the crabs then use their specially adapted mandibles to collect this microbial ‘snow’ from their claws and eat it.

That wraps it up for our list of non-human gardeners, were there any favourites of yours that we missed? Next week we’ll be exploring the plants that survive in the most extreme environments on earth and how they do it.

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