How many ants are there? The number is ‘incredibly difficult to comprehend’

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as it happens5:21How many ants are there? The number is ‘incredibly hard to understand’

There are so many ants on the planet, that the human brain can barely comprehend them, says the German entomologist who helped calculate the number.

In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesIn this article, a group of scientists examined data from 489 studies of ants and used those results to estimate the number of creatures currently walking on Earth.

The final result was 20 quadrillion. That is 20 thousand million million, or 20,000,000,000,000,000,000 with 16 zeros. It is likely to be an underestimate.

“I was shocked,” said Sabine Nuten, an insect ecologist at the University of Würzburg and one of the study’s lead authors. as it happens Hosted by Neil Koksal. “It’s so hard to fathom. It’s amazingly cool too.”

In other words, the combined biomass of the world’s ants is greater than the biomass of all land birds and non-human mammals combined. And while they are more common in tropical climates, they can be found in a variety of habitats on every continent.

And they’re all there, doing their busy work, cutting picnics and playing an important role in preserving global ecosystems.

How did they do that?

To come up with a tally of those, Nooten and her colleagues looked at hundreds of studies from around the world in different languages.

The studies themselves tend to use one of two methods to calculate different ant populations. The first is to collect a sample of the leaf litter: “This is really neat because you can use one square meter of the forest floor, take all the leaf litter and extract the ants from that leaf litter. And then you can count all the ants in that area and you can, eventually, expand from this region and extrapolation to the global surface.”

The other is the use of ant traps and waiting for them to fall into them, and the use of these aggregates to extrapolate larger numbers of ants.

Close-up of about three mysterious brown ants crawling along a tree trunk.
The giant ant, or Paraponera clavata, is one of about 12,000 recorded species of ants on the planet – and new species are being discovered all the time. (Eric Feverberg/AFP/Getty Images)

Aaron Fairweather, a doctoral student at the University of Guelph who studies ants and other insects, says the study’s methodology is “absolutely remarkable and sound,” and its global scope is a “huge undertaking.”

“Understanding that there are quadrillion of ants on this planet is unbelievable and unfathomable. The fact that we have the means to begin to understand that is more than remarkable,” they said.

“We are now beginning to take a look at what global ant life on this planet might look like. However, in my opinion, this is probably an underestimate of the total size of ants on this planet.”

Fairweather said this is in part because current methods for counting ant numbers are limited and unable to count creatures that live under the soil and in vegetation.

But this is also because there are whole species of ants that have not yet been discovered.

Nooten says there are 12,000 known species of ants, or 16,000 if you break down all the subspecies, and “many more are still being discovered each year.”

What’s so great about ants, anyway?

So why do scientists want to know the number of ants?

“While ants can sometimes be really a nuisance if they invade our kitchens or if we invade on picnics outside in parks, they are very important in the ecosystems they are in,” Notten said.

they help Nutrient Cycleaerating the soil, dispersing seeds, decomposing biomaterial from plants and carcasses.

“So they do all these different jobs out there. Without them, I think ecosystems would look very different from what they do now,” Notten said.

“I think it’s really important for us when we go into the woods and walk in the park or something, we not only appreciate the big animals that we see, like small mammals and birds, but we also have to look around and see the little things that are basically driving And it helps keep our ecosystems functioning and under control.”

A woman with long curly light blond hair takes a selfie in front of green fields and snow-capped mountains.
Insect ecologist Sabine Naughten says ants play an important role in Earth’s ecological environment. (Provided by Sabine Nuten)

Fairweather agrees, and says that studying insect biomass can also help us better understand how we work. Works the planet, and monitors the effects of climate change.

“This is a very understudied area, but it’s very important to watch as climates are changing more and more rapidly. Contextualizing our impact on the planet through numbers, mass and people; that’s what draws attention to this issue,” Fairweather said.

It could also help us track insect populations over time, and get a better idea of ​​how to do this, they said Many of them are lost due to things like climate change, pesticide use, urbanization, agriculture, distribution of invasive species, and pollution.

In fact, Notten says a good next step, in terms of research, would be to me Map the ant population on a timeline to see how it has changed. In follow-up studies, scientists can examine whether their numbers are increasing or decreasing.

She says ants “do many different, amazing things.” So the next time you have the urge to crush one, she urges you to reconsider.

“If I see one on a picnic, I give her a cracker or something to eat and see where she goes,” she said.

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