The world population is expected to exceed 8 billion in the coming months. Compared to ants, this is a modest event.
The researchers have made the most comprehensive assessment to date of the number of ants in the world, and the estimated total is 20 quadrillion of them, or roughly 2.5 million per human.
It should come as no surprise given how prevalent these crowded and social insects were and the fact that they have thrived since the age of the dinosaurs, with the oldest known ant fossils dating back about 100 million years to the Cretaceous period.
said entomologist Patrick Schulthes of the University of Würzburg in Germany and the University of Hong Kong, co-lead author of the study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“They are very important for nutrient cycling, decomposition processes, plant seed dispersal and soil disturbance. Ants are also a very diverse group of insects, with different species performing a wide range of functions. But most of all, it is their high abundance that makes them major environmental players” Schulthes said.
There are more than 12,000 known species of ants, which are usually black, brown or red in color and have bodies divided into three parts. Ranging in size from about four parts of an inch (1 mm) to about 1.2 inches (3 cm), ants usually inhabit soil, foliage, or decaying plants—and sometimes human kitchens.
Ants, whose closest relatives are bees and wasps, are native to almost every place on Earth, as any park knows, except for Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland and some island countries.
“I was amazed that the biomass of ants was higher than that of mammals and wild birds combined, and that it is up to 20% of the biomass of humans,” said Sabine Knutin, an insect ecologist and study co-author, who also works at the University of Würzburg and the University of Hong Kong. This gives you an understanding of the scale of its impact.
“I find the sheer diversity of ants fascinating. They can be small or huge and show the most unusual adaptations,” Newton added, citing a widespread ant genus called Strumigenys, known for their long, spiky mouthparts that are used to hunt small invertebrates.
The researchers based their analysis on 489 studies of ant populations on every continent where the insects live.
Our data set represents a massive collection effort for thousands of scientists. We were then able to extrapolate the number of ants to different regions of the world and estimate the global total number and biomass,” Schulthes said.
Tropics have been found to host far more ants than other regions, with forests and drylands boasting more ants than urban areas.
“There are certain parts of the world where we have little data and can’t come up with reliable estimates for all the continents. Africa is one example. We have known for a long time that it is a continent rich in ants but also poorly studied,” Schulthes said.
Ants generally live in colonies, sometimes consisting of millions of them divided into groups with different roles such as workers, soldiers, and queens. The workers, all females, take care of the larger queen and her offspring, maintaining the nest, and feeding on them. Males mate with queens, then die.
“Some ants can be very annoying for sure, but that’s a very human-centered perspective,” Schulthes said.
“Most ants are actually very useful, even for us humans,” Schulthes added. “Think of how much organic matter 20 quadrillion ants transport, remove, recycle, and eat. In fact, ants are so essential to the smooth working of biological processes that they can be considered ecosystem engineers. The late ant scientist E. O. Wilson once described them as “the little things that run the world.” “.