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A Wilder View: The number of ants on Earth is nearly unimaginable

Posted at 11:12 AM, Oct 12, 2022

MISSOULA - If you tried counting a colony of ants yourself, you may be counting for months — but imagine counting all of the ants on Earth.

Our wildlife correspondent Tanner Saul explains why the number of ants on Earth is nearly unimaginable.

The astounding coverage of ants has prompted many naturalists to ponder their exact number on Earth, but efficient and accurate estimates have been lacking — until now.

A recent study estimates there are more than 20 quadrillion ants on Earth.

To try and put that into perspective that means there would be 2.5 million ants per person.

This exceeds the mass of wild birds and mammals combined and equals 20% of the biomass of all people with a total biomass of 12 megatons of dry carbon.

Ants can be found on every continent except Antarctica and live in all sorts of habitats, with nearly two-thirds of them found in tropical forests and savannahs.

Therefore, no matter where you go, no matter how different the culture or the natural environment, there are ants.

With an average colony size of 250,000 individuals and more than 12,000 known species, it would be pretty difficult to study all of them at once.

So, researchers in the recent publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzed 489 ant studies across the globe to come up with their estimate.

The hundreds of studies used two general approaches for their research.

One was setting traps known as pitfalls that captured ants passing by and the second method analyzed the number of ants on a given patch of leaves on the ground.

But why care about how many ants there are in the first place?

Well, ants are crucial in keeping our ecosystems healthy.

While finding an ant in your house is quite annoying, the billions of ants outside are helping do things like aerating the ground.

This helps out plants by allowing water and oxygen to reach their roots.

They also help plant seeds by taking them down into their tunnels, where they usually sprout new plants.

Without ants, forests would be stacked to the brim with dead wood. Ants keep forest floors clean by eating up rotting trees and other decaying materials.

Ants also serve as an important food source for other animals including, sometimes, people.

Insight into the distribution and amount of wildlife is crucial to understanding their roles within ecosystems and their importance for other animals.

Unfortunately, this information is currently lacking for insects, which have long been regarded as the “little things that run the world”.

Insect experts — entomologists — are seeing declines in insect populations beyond ants around the world.

Habitat destruction, pesticides and climate change contribute to this.

Over 40% of insect species may go extinct over the next few decades, according to a study from Biological Conservation, with butterflies and beetles facing the greatest threat.

Biologists aren’t sure whether ants’ numbers are falling as well, mainly because their numbers are just so massive.

While surveys from this recent study have been carried out on all continents, some major regions had little or no data — including central Africa and Asia.

This means that the true number of ants in the world could be way larger than even 20 quadrillion.

The researchers explain that it is critical that these gaps are filled to obtain a comprehensive understanding of insect diversity.