How many are there and what do they do?
You walk by ants every day, but have you ever stopped to wonder why there are so many and just what they are up to? They play key roles in supporting their environments. One of these many roles is seed dispersal. Ants consume plant seeds, bringing the seeds inside their elaborate tunnels that allow them to travel long distances unharmed. The remains of the seeds then grow far from the original plant, which helps spread plant populations across many landscapes (1). Because oxygen and water can flow through their tunnels, ants aerate the soil, helping plants receive the nutrients they need to survive (1). Finally, ants are also a key part of many food webs. They consume a wide variety of organisms, including plants, insects, and decaying animals, and are a key source of food for many animals, such as anteaters and frogs (1).
Due to the importance of ants, Dr. Schultheiss, an ecologist who researches ants in Hong Kong, and his colleagues researched how many there actually are in the world. They were able to determine that there are more than 20 quadrillion (20 billion million) ants throughout the Earth. This means that for every single human being, there are about 2.5 million ants (2). Five hundred scientists collected samples in 1300 ecosystems across many countries to gain information about ant populations in different environments (3). These scientists were able to use methods such as pit traps and leaf litter samples to find a rough count for the number of ants in each area (2). After this, they could get estimates on how many ants are in environments, such as tropical forests and shrublands (2). These measurements were made all across the world to try and account for the uneven distribution of ants. Finally, the scientists reached the count of 20 quadrillion. They believe this count to be less than the actual total, since they had to make estimates for ants underground and in trees because they were not able to sample those areas (2). They were also able to calculate that ants have a collective biomass of around 12 megatons, as much as two pyramids of Giza or one fifth of the total biomass of humans in the world (3).
There are over 15,700 different species of ants, each with unique adaptations in order to thrive in its ecosystem (3). Without these 20 quadrillion ants, our daily lives would be very different. Food chains that rely on ants would completely fall apart, and all animals, including humans, would be affected. It would also destroy many plant populations that rely on the water they receive from ant tunnels (1). Ants are some of the most important creatures on Earth, and without them nothing would be the same. So, next time you see a miniscule ant, just remember that they have a massive impact on our existence.
Ants digging tunnels underground.
This is an example of a pitfall trap that the researchers used to collect ants.
- Earth Reminder. (2022, May 4) What Do Ants Do For The Environment? Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://www.earthreminder.com/what-do-ants-do-for-the-environment/.
- Dzombak, R. (2022, September 22) How Many Ants Are There on Earth? You’re Going to Need More Zeros. Retrieved September 31, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/22/science/ants-census-20-quadrillion.html
- Wong, M. (2022, September 26) How many ants are there on the planet? Their combined weight will surprise you. Retrieved October 2, 2022, from https://www.livemint.com/science/news/how-many-ants-are-there-on-the-planet-their-combined-weight-will-surprise-you-11664163588595.html
- Wolfe, M (n.d.) Understanding a Fire Ant Colony. Retrieved October 9, 2022, from https://www.amdro.com/learn/fire-ants/understanding-a-fire-ant-colony.
- Sacramento State News (2015, June 4) Ants have plenty of legroom in campus exhibit. Retrieved October 9, 2022, from https://www.csus.edu/news/articles/2015/6/4/ants-have-plenty-of-leg-room-in-spacious-exhibit.shtml
- National Museums Scotland (n.d.) Make a pitfall trap
Retrieved October 20th, 2022 from https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/resources/make-a-pitfall-trap/