Skip to main content

Research Repository

Advanced Search

Tradeoffs in the evolution of plant farming by ants

Chomicki, Guillaume; Kadereit, Gudrun; Renner, Susanne S.; Kiers, E. Toby

Tradeoffs in the evolution of plant farming by ants Thumbnail


Gudrun Kadereit

Susanne S. Renner

E. Toby Kiers


Diverse forms of cultivation have evolved across the tree of life. Efficient farming requires that the farmer deciphers and actively promotes conditions that increase crop yield. For plant cultivation, this can include evaluating tradeoffs among light, nutrients, and protection against herbivores. It is not understood if, or how, nonhuman farmers evaluate local conditions to increase payoffs. Here, we address this question using an obligate farming mutualism between the ant Philidris nagasau and epiphytic plants in the genus Squamellaria that are cultivated for their nesting sites and floral rewards. We focused on the ants’ active fertilization of their crops and their protection against herbivory. We found that ants benefited from cultivating plants in full sun, receiving 7.5-fold more floral food rewards compared to shade-cultivated plants. The higher reward levels correlated with higher levels of crop protection provided by the ants. However, while high-light planting yielded the greatest immediate food rewards, sun-grown crops contained less nitrogen compared to shade-grown crops. This was due to lower nitrogen input from ants feeding on floral rewards instead of insect protein gained from predation. Despite this tradeoff, farming ants optimize crop yield by selectively planting their crops in full sun. Ancestral state reconstructions across this ant–plant clade show that a full-sun farming strategy has existed for millions of years, suggesting that nonhuman farmers have evolved the means to evaluate and balance conflicting crop needs to their own benefit.


Chomicki, G., Kadereit, G., Renner, S. S., & Kiers, E. T. (2020). Tradeoffs in the evolution of plant farming by ants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(5), 2535-2543.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Dec 18, 2019
Online Publication Date Jan 21, 2020
Publication Date Feb 4, 2020
Deposit Date Jan 22, 2020
Publicly Available Date Jul 21, 2020
Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Print ISSN 0027-8424
Electronic ISSN 1091-6490
Publisher National Academy of Sciences
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 117
Issue 5
Pages 2535-2543
Public URL


You might also like

Downloadable Citations