There are at least 20 trillion ants on Earth, according to a new study, which says even that staggering number likely underestimates the overall population of insects, which are an integral part of ecosystems around the world.
Determining the global ant population is important in order to measure the consequences of changes in their habitat, including climate change.
Ants play significant roles by dispersing seeds, harboring organisms, and serving as either predators or prey.
Some studies have attempted to estimate the global ant population, but they came up with a number far lower than 20 quadrillion, which is equivalent to 20 million billion.
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For this new experiment, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the researchers analyzed 465 studies that measured the number of local ants in the field.
Two standardized techniques have been used in hundreds of studies: setting traps that capture passing ants over a period of time, or analyzing the number of ants on a given leaf spot on the ground.
While surveys were conducted on all continents, some large regions had little or no data, including Central Africa and Asia.
For this reason, “the true abundance of ants worldwide may be significantly higher” than estimated, the study states. “It is of utmost importance that we fill in these remaining gaps in order to obtain a comprehensive picture of insect diversity.”
There are more than 15,700 named species and subspecies of ants found across the planet, and likely an equal number yet to be described.
But nearly two-thirds of them are found in only two types of ecosystems: tropical forests and savannas.
Based on the estimated number of ants, their total global biomass is thought to be 12 megatons of dry carbon — more than that of wild birds and mammals combined and 20 percent that of humans.
In the future, the researchers want to investigate the environmental factors that influence the population density of the tiny creatures.