Posts Tagged ‘farming’

By Alison George

Human speech contains more than 2000 different sounds, from the ubiquitous “m” and “a” to the rare clicks of some southern African languages. But why are certain sounds more common than others? A ground-breaking, five-year investigation shows that diet-related changes in human bite led to new speech sounds that are now found in half the world’s languages.

More than 30 years ago, the linguist Charles Hockett noted that speech sounds called labiodentals, such as “f” and “v”, were more common in the languages of societies that ate softer foods. Now a team of researchers led by Damián Blasi at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, has pinpointed how and why this trend arose.

They found that the upper and lower incisors of ancient human adults were aligned, making it hard to produce labiodentals, which are formed by touching the lower lip to the upper teeth. Later, our jaws changed to an overbite structure, making it easier to produce such sounds.

The team showed that this change in bite correlated with the development of agriculture in the Neolithic period. Food became easier to chew at this point, which led to changes in human jaws and teeth: for instance, because it takes less pressure to chew softer, farmed foods, the jawbone doesn’t have to do as much work and so doesn’t grow to be so large.

Analyses of a language database also confirmed that there was a global change in the sound of world languages after the Neolithic era, with the use of “f” and “v” increasing dramatically in recent millennia. These sounds are still not found in the languages of many hunter-gatherer people today.

This research overturns the prevailing view that all human speech sounds were present when Homo sapiens evolved around 300,000 years ago. “The set of speech sounds we use has not necessarily remained stable since the emergence of our species, but rather the immense diversity of speech sounds that we find today is the product of a complex interplay of factors involving biological change and cultural evolution,” said team member Steven Moran, a linguist at the University of Zurich, at a briefing about this study.

This new approach to studying language evolution is a game changer, says Sean Roberts at the University of Bristol, UK. “For the first time, we can look at patterns in global data and spot new relationships between the way we speak and the way we live,” he says. “It’s an exciting time to be a linguist.”

Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aav3218


By Alice Klein

Ants beat us to it. A Fijian ant first started planting fruit crops 3 million years ago, long before human agriculture evolved.

The ant – Philidris nagasau – grows and harvests Squamellaria fruit plants that grow on the branches of various trees.

First, the ants insert seeds of the fruit plant in the cracks in tree bark. Workers constantly patrol the planting sites and fertilise the seedlings, probably with their faeces.

As the plants grow, they form large, round hollow structures at their base called domatia that the ants live in instead of building nests. When the fruit appears, the ants eat the flesh and collect the seeds for future farming.

Guillaume Chomicki at the University of Munich, Germany, and his colleagues discovered that each ant colony farmed dozens of Squamellaria plants at the same time, with trails linking each thriving hub. The connected plant cities often spanned several adjacent trees.

The researchers found that Squamellaria plants are completely dependent on the ants to plant and fertilise their seeds. At the same time, Philidris nagasau ants cannot survive without the food and shelter provided by the plants. The Fijian phenomenon is the first documented example of ants farming plants in a mutually dependent relationship.

Trees in nearby Australia have been observed with similar-looking ant-filled plants growing along their branches, but no one has known why, says Simon Robson at James Cook University in Australia. The plants are from the same family as Squamellaria, suggesting they have the same symbiotic farming relationship with ants.

Chomicki’s team also conducted a genetic analysis to study the history of the Fijian ant-plant interactions. The results showed that the ants lost their ability to build nests around 3 million years ago, at the same time as the plants developed roots that could grow in bark. This signals the beginning of the mutual relationship, which emerged when Fiji and Australia were still connected.

Brainy ants
Only a handful of other species have been found to farm their food. For example, Yeti crabs cultivate bacteria on their claws and sloths grow algae gardens on their fur. Ants have been known to cultivate fungi, but this is the first time they have been found to plant crops in such a mutualistic manner.

The fact that ants have developed such sophisticated food production skills confirms the impressive teamwork of ants, says Kirsti Abbott at the University of New England, Australia.

“Ants are a lot smarter than we think they are – we call them superorganisms because they form networks that are much like our brains,” she says. “The information flow among ant colonies is just insane compared to human social systems, so this finding does not surprise me in the slightest.”

Journal reference: Nature Plants, DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2016.181