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Earth’s ant population of 20 quadrillion is 2.5 million larger than humans, study finds


To say that ants outnumber people on Earth would be a gross understatement. According to a new study, there are 2.5 million times more ants on this planet than humans.

In total, that’s 20 quadrillion – or 20,000,000,000,000,000 – ants.

A team of researchers from Australia, Germany and Hong Kong analyzed 489 studies that collated data on land and tree ants in different habitats across all continents to come up with a mind-blowing estimate. The research could help scientists understand the role ants play in ecosystems and provide a way to assess how these and other insects are affected by threats such as climate change.

“Our results provide a crucial baseline for exploring environmental drivers of ant abundance patterns and for tracking insect responses to environmental change,” the scientists wrote in the study, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study also estimated that the total mass of ants on the planet was equivalent to about 12 megatons of dry carbon, a huge sum that hints at their ubiquity, said Mark Wong, Forrest Fellow at the University’s School of Biological Sciences. from Western. Australia.

Taken together, the total mass of ants on the planet would actually exceed all of the world’s wild birds and mammals, he added.

“We found that there were literally tons of ants on Earth, which really highlights their ecological value,” Wong said in a statement.

Jorge Villalba/Getty Images/iStockphoto

According to the study, ants can be found in almost all habitats except the polar regions. Forests and arid parts of the planet had the most ant specimens, while tropical areas had the highest density of ant populations, the researchers found.

“Our results show that ant numbers are highest in the tropics, which include areas facing some of the strongest pressures from human disturbance and environmental change,” Wong said in the release.

The scientists called the new estimate conservative and said more research was needed to assess the role ants play in their terrestrial ecosystems.

“Per hectare, ants move up to 13 tons of soil mass per year,” said study lead author Patrick Schultheiss, a biologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, in a statement. As such, “they have a great influence on the maintenance of the nutrient cycle and also play a decisive role in the distribution of plant seeds”.

Previous studies have had ominous prospects for insect populations around the world. A series of studies published in January 2021 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that climate change, invasive species, light pollution, changes in agriculture, and the use of insecticides and herbicides collectively cause the loss of approximately 1% to 2% of Earth’s insects each year.

A separate study published in April 2020 in the journal Science found that the planet has lost more than a quarter of its terrestrial insects over the past 30 years.

“Ants provide key ecological services – not only in natural systems but also in our farms, plantations, parks and cities – so it is in our interests to monitor populations and study how they are responding to global warming,” said said Wong.

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