Leaf-cutter Ants and the Future of Space Agriculture

The 1970s dream for space farming. (NASA)

An ancient race has come to dominate a single agricultural crop, one in which they've invested everything to sustain their massive population. They're one vicious blight away from starvation, but at this point there's no returning to the source. Their precious crop is a million years extinct in the natural world and there's no going home.

It sounds like an ideal plight for a futuristic generation ship, adrift among the stars with a belly full of space crops. But while it resonates with warnings about humanity's own single-crop fixations, this is of course the story of the leaf-cutter ant.

I was lucky enough to see these amazing creatures in action on a recent vacation to Costa Rica. We even got to peak inside an active colony. It breaks down like this:

Step one: Bring leaf cuttings back to the colony, along well-worn forest roads and paths. Step Two: Filter out the bad cuttings, hand the good ones off to the farmers. Step Three: Munch the leaf cuttings down into a fine mulch. Step Four: Grow some delicious fungi on that mulch, lay some eggs in it and enjoy. Step Five: Drag depleted leaf cuttings to the dump chamber along with all the dead ants and dead fungus.

Leaf Cutters at work. (Bonnie J. Heath Photography)

You'll find a cool diagram here. As this Animal Planet video lays out, it's nothing short of amazing.

When winged males prepare to leave home to found new colonies, they take a sample of their precious fungi with them to kick-start a new farm. Again, there's no picking up a fungi starter pack at the grocery. It's like one of those caveman movies where no one knows how to make fire anymore, so the have to keep the original spark going. Heck, in a larger sense it's not unlike modern math and science.

But the leaf cutter system has worked just fine for 25 million years, so humans don't have a lot of room to criticize the ants' approach to fungitarianism. But could humans wind up on the same strange shore one day?

Historically, we depended on upwards of 7,000 different plant species, while modern factory farming techniques has that total down to around 150 -- and according the New York Times, the vast majority of humans depend on a mere dozen plant species.

And if we take to space with just NASA's USU-Apogee? The dwarf wheat was designed in the 1990s to develop high yields in space-based life support system. Maybe such a super crop would propel humanity 25 million light years across the cosmos. Maybe not.

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About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.