How many ants are in the world?


How many ants are in the world?

Small insects, gigantic numbers: Researchers have succeeded in determining the size and biomass of the global ant population. In the forest, in the city, or as an uninvited guest at home: ants can be found almost everywhere. There seems to be no place where the insects don’t settle. No wonder: more than 15,000 described and around 30,000 estimated species of the six-legged all-rounders creep and crawl from the tropics to the sub-polar climate zones of the earth.

But how many ants are in the world? This a question that many people have probably asked themselves at some point. The answer could now be provided by a study by the Universities of Wurzburg and Hong Kong, which have investigated this seemingly impossible question. Their amazing results were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

20 quadrillion – “a 20 followed by 15 zeroes”

For their extensive calculations, the team led by lead author Sabine Nooten and biologist Patrick Schulte’s used data sets from all over the world. A total of 489 studies on soil and tree-dwelling ant species were combined in a database. Their subsequent systematic and empirical estimates unearthed numbers that are difficult even for researchers to grasp. “We estimate that the global ant population is 20 times 10 15 – that’s 20 quadrillion animals. That’s a 20 followed by 15 zeroes,” says Nooten.

However, more understandable comparisons can also be made on the basis of the data sets. The biomass of all ants living on earth can be specified in twelve megatons of carbon. In comparison, according to the study, that would be about 20 percent of the mass of the entire human race. Or to put it even more graphically: Even if one were to add up the biomass of all wild birds and mammals, the biomass of the ants would still be larger.

How many ants are in the world?

However, the study was not only concerned with the total number of ants in the world, but also with their proportionate distribution in the various habitats. “Ant abundance is unevenly distributed on Earth, peaking in the tropics and varying six-fold between habitats,” the study says. Species that prefer to live close to the ground are mainly found in dry areas. On the other hand, the density of tree-dwelling ant species is highest in forests. Hardly surprising: the populations in heavily urbanized and human-dominated regions have a particularly difficult time.

Positive impact on the ecosystem

But what are these calculations for? And what use do ants have for the most diverse ecosystems? On the one hand, the exact determination of the distribution of the insects also provides helpful information regarding invasive species. According to the study, large quantities of these can have a negative impact on local biodiversity. Competing for habitat, food, and other resources can stress and cause lasting damage to both insect and plant life.

How many ants are in the world?

On the other hand, a large part of the 20 trillion individuals is an extremely useful link for important natural processes. According to Schultheiss, ants move around 13 tons of soil every year on one hectare of land – much more than other soil dwellers such as earthworms. To do this, they clean their environment of carrion or keep the populations of pests low. At the same time, the small collectors also spread the seeds of plants, which benefits their spread. And: The hard-working insects are also available as food for larger animals such as woodpeckers, swallows, or capercaillie.

The findings of the scientists can serve as a basis for future research. For example, Nooten, Schultheiss, and their team think it makes sense to investigate the extent to which various environmental influences affect the spread and distribution of ants. Because the changing climate in particular could soon have an impact on the populations of the six-legged friends.

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