Ants have several key roles in maintaining the balance of the environment, including aerating the soil, dispersing seeds, decomposing organic material, and providing food for other animals. Researchers have made a startling new estimate of the number of ants living on Earth: 20 quadrillion ants. That’s 20,000,000,000,000,000 ants. By comparison, our galaxy has about 100 billion stars. For every living person on the planet, there are approximately 2.5 million ants.
“It’s unimaginable,” says the ant researcher Patrick Schultheis of the University of Würzburg in Germany. “We just can’t imagine 20 quadrillion ants all together. There’s just no way.”
To reach their stunning conclusion, Schultheiss and a team of researchers analyzed 489 studies examining populations of these insects around the world. The documents are in seven languages, cover observations of different habitat types, including forests, deserts, grasslands and cities. The new paper with the latest results was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
“We estimate that the world’s ants account for about 12 megatons of dry carbon,” said co-author Mark Wong, an ecologist at the University of Western Australia. “Impressively, this exceeds the biomass of all of the world’s wild birds and mammals combined.”
“Ants are the dominant insects on the planet,” noted myrmecologist EO Wilson. Wherever I go besides Antarctica and the Arctic (and I don’t go there because there are no ants) – no matter how different the human culture is, no matter how different the natural environment is, the ants are there.”
The hard working insects are unevenly distributed across the globe, where most are living in forests and arid regions and fewer preferring to toil in man-made habitats. They are most abundant in the tropics, highlighting “the importance of tropical regions in maintaining healthy ant populations,” the authors note.
20 quadrillion ants may sound like a mind-boggling number, but the number is probably an underestimate, according to The Conversation. In most studies, the team analyzed ant samples only from the ground layer, omitting those in trees and underground.
In future research, the team wants to examine how the ant population has changed over time. It is currently unclear whether the number of ants is also declining.