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Earth has 20 quadrillion ants, new population study says

It’s the world of ants and we’re just visiting.

New estimates of the total number of burrowing and humming ants on Earth put the total to a whopping 20,000 trillion.

A staggering sum of 20,000,000,000,000,000, or 20,000 trillion, reveals the astonishing ubiquity of ants, even as scientists become concerned that mass insect deaths could upend ecosystems. .

In a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of scientists from the University of Hong Kong analyzed 489 studies and concluded that the total mass of ants on Earth is about 12 megatons of dry carbon.

In other words, pulling all the ants out of the ground and putting them on a scale weighs more than all the wild birds and mammals combined.

Patrick Schulteis, lead author of the study and now a researcher at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in a Zoom interview: “For example, he can’t imagine having 20,000 trillion ants in one pile. It just doesn’t work.”

Counting all these insects, or at least counting enough to make an accurate estimate, required combining data from “thousands of authors in different countries” over a century. added Schultheis.

There are two ways to count insects as abundant as ants. Get down to the ground and sample the leaves, or set up a small pit (often a plastic cup) for the ants to slide into. Data are scarce in much of Africa and some places in Central Asia, but their boots are stained with surveys in nearly every corner of the world.

“Working on these numbers is a truly global effort,” said Schulttheiss.

Ants, like humans, have marched on virtually every continent and in all kinds of habitats. Ground-dwelling ants are most abundant in tropical and subtropical regions, but they are found almost everywhere except in the coldest regions of the planet, according to the research team.

Or as noted author and mycologist (meaning ant scientist) EO Wilson put it in once: “Wherever I go – except for Antarctica and the Arctic, I don’t go there because there are no ants – no matter how different the human culture is, how different the natural environment is. , there are ants.”

Sure, the world might be better off with all these ants. They tunnel and aerate the soil, dragging seeds underground to germinate. They serve as a food source for countless arthropods, birds, and mammals. Carpenter ants are a nuisance to homeowners, but without the decomposing power of wood-destroying insects, forests would be filled with dead wood.

Entomologists are seeing populations of non-ant insects decline in places like Germany and Puerto Rico.Habitat destruction, pesticides and climate change contribute to this possibility, which is still debatedBugpocalypse. more than 40% of his insect species may become extinct, According to a 2019 surveybutterflies, bees and beetles face the greatest threat.

Scientists aren’t sure if ant numbers are similarly declining.

That’s the next research question the team wants to answer. “We hadn’t yet attempted to show this amount of change over time,” Sabine Nuten, an insect ecologist and another co-lead author on the study, told Zoom. rice field. “That will come next.”

For decades, scientists have watched ant farms in laboratories to test theories about animal behavior. Ant scientist Wilson died Last year, we used our insights into ants to explain the genetic underpinnings of cooperation between animals and highlight the sheer biodiversity of life worth protecting.

In the 1990s, he and fellow biologist Bert Heldbler attempted to make rough guesses about Earth’s ant population. Their estimate is around 10,000 trillion, on the same order of magnitude as a recent more rigorous estimate released on Monday.

“In the case of EO Wilson, he was simply very smart,” said Schulteis. “He knew a lot about ants and basically had an intuition.”

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