20 Quadrillion Ants Inhabit Earth, Scientists Estimate

When Mark Wong began analyzing 489 entomological studies covering every continent, major habitat, and biome on Earth, he had a simple goal: count the ants. The road to a definitive answer was long and often tedious. Then one day, Wong and other ant experts came out the other side.

According to a new article published Monday in the journal PNAS, the international team of scientists estimate that there are currently a whopping 20 quadrillion ants roaming our planet. That’s 20,000,000,000,000,000 of those six-legged worker insects you’ll catch pollinating plants, scattering seeds like little gardeners, and salivating after 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 combined biomass of all wild birds and mammals in the world.”

To put this amazing amount in perspective, multiply the team’s estimate for ant biomass by five. The number you get is roughly equal to the total human biomass on Earth – and this could be one conservative estimate. Each of the 489 global studies was fairly thorough — employing tens of hundreds of booby-trapping tactics, like trapping escaped ants in small ditches made of plastic containers and gently shaking leaves to learn how many take refuge in crusty houses. But as with most research efforts, caveats remained.

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For example, sampling sites, Wong explains, were unevenly distributed across geographic regions, and the vast majority were collected from the soil layer. “We have very little information about the number of ants in trees or underground,” he said. “This means that our results are somewhat incomplete.”

Why worry about counting ants?

Despite their small size, ants are quite powerful.

Aside from tunneling seeds into the ground for dinner and accidentally making plants bloom from their leftovers, these buggers are integral to maintaining the delicate balance of our ecosystem. They are prey for larger animals, predators of many others, ground burrowers and scavengers to name a few of their distinctions. So, given the sheer volume of them gracing the earth, they’re a pretty big deal. “This massive amount of ants on Earth strongly underscores their ecological value, as ants can outperform their weight by performing important ecological functions,” Wong said.

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But when it comes To count Ants in particular, like Wong, there is an urgency that arises from the rate at which our climate is changing. Scientists need to quantify how many ants and other animals and insects exist on Earth as the climate crisis – a threat exacerbated by human activity – is forcing global temperatures to rise, putting these organisms on the brink of extinction.

“We need people to rigorously and repeatedly study and describe the ecological communities of different habitats before they are lost,” Wong said, stressing that the team’s recent work provides an important basis for ant populations so we know how the communities are changing of these insects could change in conjunction with a warming climate.

A worst-case scenario that doesn’t count our Earth friends is sometimes referred to as the “dark extinction,” or anonymous extinction. It’s simply a concern that many species could slip under the radar as the climate crisis worsens due to things like habitat loss or habitability.

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These animals on the road to extinction may not even be documented, let alone studied in detail.

In this context, the team’s PNAS study begins with a fitting quote from 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 almost nothing about them.”

Because of this, Wong believes it’s important in the future to regularly survey ant populations and even speed up the process by outsourcing it to anyone able and willing to participate. “Things like counting ants,” he said, “taking photographs of the insects they encounter in their yard, and noting observations of interesting things plants and animals are doing can go a long way.”

“It would be great if, as the eminent ant biologist EO Wilson once suggested, we could just have ‘more feet on the ground’.”

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