You will never guess the number of ants on Earth!

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Spoiler: Their numbers are well over the billion scale. It’s a question many of us have already asked ourselves when we cross paths with a well-organized insect colony: How many ants are there on Earth? At first glance, this question may seem pointless; you don’t have to be a great scientist to realize that it is simply impossible to list them one by one. Therefore, we might be tempted to close the archive once and for all. But this fun question is much more interesting than one might think at first glance, and serious researchers are also looking into it. Recently, a new international team of researchers based at the Julius Maximilian University, Germany, attempted to make the most accurate estimate yet of the number of Formicidae on a planetary scale. Of course, they didn’t start gutting anthills by the dozen; instead, they did what’s called a meta-analysis. A large-scale meta-analysis This is a somewhat special category of study, since it is not based on an experimental protocol established by the authors to verify their hypothesis. Rather, it is about collecting all the serious scientific literature that exists around a specific topic. For the most robust meta-analyses, specialists often rely on dozens, even hundreds of studies that are relatively independent of each other. After this documentation work is completed, researchers can extract all the data they are interested in, then cross-reference and compare it using advanced statistical tools to draw conclusions on a larger scale. In this particular case, the authors went through no less than 489 different studies documenting the density of certain ant populations in certain areas. They have one very important thing in common: all these works are based on a standardized census method, which makes the methodology very similar from one work to another. They were able to integrate all this data into a large statistical model. The goal: to highlight clear correlations between the density of the ant population and many external factors such as the climate of the area in question, for example. This is a significant advance, as until now, work of this type has typically been based on measurements taken from one or two isolated geographic areas. In essence, therefore, they were just “educated guesses,” according to Patrick Schultheiss, co-senior author of the study. © hybridnighthawk – Unsplash At least 20 million billion ants on Earth! From these elements, all they had to do was extrapolate to the scale of the entire planet to arrive at an estimate of the world’s ant population. Thus, they were able to provide the best estimate of the total ant population to date: for them, our planet was home to at least… 20,000,000,000,000,000 ants, or 20 billion, or even 20,000 millions of these insects. A number that makes you dizzy; this represents approximately 2.5 million ants for each of the (almost) 8 billion humans that inhabit the Earth. And the observation is even more impressive when we think in terms of biomass. According to this estimate, the ant population accounts for about 12 million tons of carbon. Excluding humans, that’s more than all the birds and land mammals combined! However, it is important to remember that this estimate remains relatively vague, even if it is the first study of its kind to present such a robust methodology. Because although meta-analyses of this type can clarify clear trends, they also suffer from a sometimes prohibitive flaw: the data must be as precise and comprehensive as possible. However, in the real world, it is physically impossible to collect perfectly representative datasets. This means that the quality and density of the reads will necessarily be heterogeneous. Bottom line: There are still considerable gray areas in our knowledge of the 15,700 documented ant species. For example, if European ants are well known, the same cannot be said for African or North Asian species. This also applies to certain ecological niches. These include the canopy of tropical forests or underground passages, which are often difficult for researchers to access; these areas are, therefore, much less studied than the floor of European forests, for example, and this necessarily has considerable consequences in the study of the species that reside there. For all these reasons, the actual ant population could still be much higher than the advertised figure! © MD_JERRY – Unsplash Ants, important players in the environment Ultimately, despite these approximations, this work remains very important. In fact, monitoring the world’s ant population has deeper implications than meets the eye. It’s not all about curiosity or conservation efforts. These insects are immensely important in the overall dynamics of a large number of ecosystems, and this information helps to appreciate their status as an ecological center. It is often said that the survival of humanity is closely linked to that of bees, mainly thanks to their role in pollinating plants. But ants also play a decisive role in their respective ecological niches. They are, for example, important players in soil mixing; they promote the transport of water, oxygen and essential nutrients for the growth of plants and microorganisms. They are also one of the pillars of the global food chain; Ants are the basis of the diet of many species that would be threatened with instant extinction if ants disappeared. The study of the ant population, therefore, makes it possible to better control the complex dynamics that animate this great ecological mil-fouillet. “With this study, we provide a basis for the global distribution of ant numbers and biomass. In the future, we will be able to repeat these studies in the same places, with the same methods, to see what will have changed”, explains Sabine Nooten, second co-author of the work.
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