When Mark Wong set out to analyze 489 entomological studies spanning every continent, major habitat and biome on Earth, he had a simple goal: Count the ants. The journey to a final answer was long, and often tedious. Then, one day, Wong and other ant experts came out the other side.
According to a new paper published Monday in the journal PNAS, the international team of researchers suggests that there are as many as 20 quadrillion ants roaming our planet right now. There are 20,000,000,000,000,000 of the six-legged worker insects you catch pollinating plants, spread seeds like little gardeners, and spit in the wake of a toasted bagel.
“We further estimate that the world’s ants collectively account for about 12 megatons of dry carbon,” said Wong, an ecologist at the University of Western Australia’s School of Biological Sciences. “Impressively, this exceeds the biomass of all the world’s wild birds and mammals combined.”
To put the staggering amount into perspective, multiply the team’s ant biomass estimate by five. The number you get is roughly equivalent to the entire human biomass on Earth – and this could be one conservatives estimates. Each of the 489 global studies was quite thorough – they used tens of hundreds of booby trap tactics such as trapping running ants in small plastic container trenches and gently shaking leaves to find out how many seek shelter in crunchy homes. But as with most research endeavors, caveats remained.
Sampling sites, Wong explains, were unevenly distributed across geographic areas, for example, and the vast majority were collected from the foundation. “We have very little information about the number of ants in trees or underground,” he said. “This means that our findings are somewhat incomplete.”
Why bother counting ants?
Despite their diminutive size, ants carry quite a bit of power.
Aside from tunneling seeds into the ground for dinner and inadvertently flowering plants from their remains, these insects are important in maintaining the ecosystem’s delicate balance. They are prey for larger animals, predators of many others, scavengers and scavengers, to name a few of their distinctions. So considering the sheer number of them that grace the earth, they’re a pretty big deal. “This enormous abundance of ants on Earth strongly emphasizes their ecological value, as ants can punch above their weight to provide important ecological functions,” Wong said.
But when it comes down to it counting ants specifically, as Wong did, the speed at which our climate is changing is urgent. Scientists need to quantify how many ants, as well as other animals and insects, exist on Earth because the climate crisis – a threat exacerbated by human activity – is forcing global temperatures to rise and thus putting these organisms at risk of extinction.
“We need people to thoroughly and repeatedly map and describe the ecological communities in different habitats before they are lost,” said Wong, emphasizing that the team’s recent work provides an important baseline for ant populations, so we know how these insects’ communities can change . in step with a warmer climate.
A worst-case scenario of not counting our other earthly friends is sometimes called “dark extinction,” or anonymous extinction. It is simply the concern that many species may disappear under the radar as the climate crisis worsens due to things like loss of habitat or habitability.
These animals on the road to extinction may not even be documented, let alone studied in detail.
In this regard, the team’s PNAS study opens with an apt quote from the American biologist and ant specialist Edward O. Wilson: “Ants make up two-thirds of the biomass of all insects. There are millions of species of organisms and we know next to nothing about them.”
Going forward, that is why Wong believes it is important to regularly survey ant populations, and even speed up the process by making it available to everyone who can and wants to participate. “Things like counting ants,” he said, “taking pictures of the insects they encounter in their garden and observing interesting things that plants and animals do can go a long way.
“It would be great to have – as the eminent ant biologist EO Wilson once suggested – simply ‘more boots on the ground.’