HONG KONG- Have you ever wondered how many ants crawl on Earth? Scientists have tackled the seemingly impossible question and reveal a mind-boggling conclusion: there are 20,000,000,000,000,000 ants on the planet.
More simply, it is 20 quadrillion, or 20 followed by 15 zeros.
The question was tackled by a team from the Insect Biodiversity and Biogeography Laboratory of the School of Biological Sciences (SBS) of the University of Hong Kong (HKU). In their work, they also calculated the total biomass of all these ants, putting into perspective their importance on our planet.
“The astonishing ubiquity of ants has prompted many naturalists to contemplate their exact numbers on Earth, but systematic and empirical estimates are lacking. Integrating data from all continents and major biomes, we conservatively estimate 20 × 1015 (20 quadrillion ) of ants on Earth, with a total biomass of 12 megatons of dry carbon,” the study authors write in their paper. “This exceeds the combined biomass of birds and wild mammals and is equivalent to 20% of human biomass .”
“Although these questions may seem trivial at first glance, they have enormous implications for our understanding of natural processes, since ants are key players in most ecosystems and have many complex interactions with other organisms. “
The study highlights not only the central role that ants play in terrestrial ecosystems, but also major ecological and geographic gaps in our current knowledge. Scientists believe that calculating the number of ants on Earth and their biomass will help them better understand the natural processes of Earth’s various ecosystems.
“For decades, ant researchers have been incredibly busy studying ant communities around the world. They collected thousands of ant samples to identify the species and often counted all the ants when publishing. of their findings in scientific papers,” co-lead author Dr. Patrick Schultheiss, a postdoctoral researcher at SBS, explains during the study in a statement.
“We were able to compile this data from nearly 500 different studies from around the world and written in many different languages,” he adds. “In this way, we were able to quantify the density of ants in various parts of the globe, and also estimate the total number of ants on Earth.”
The ant discovery also points to a biodiversity research problem
Researchers have found that ants tend to be more prevalent in tropical regions of the planet. Co-lead author Dr Sabine Nooten says the insect numbers are “difficult to grasp and appreciate”. Nooten recently left the research team in Hong Kong to study at Julius Maximilian University in Würzburg, Germany.
“Ants are particularly abundant in forests and, surprisingly, in arid regions, but are becoming less common in human-created habitats, with potential consequences for ecological services (e.g., decomposition, pest control) than they can provide,” she says.
An interesting conclusion for scientists is that the revelation also highlights how little is still known about our planet.
“This is very worrying because the world is changing rapidly and scientists lack basic information on how biodiversity may change in these regions,” says lead author Dr. Benoit Guénard, head of the Biodiversity Laboratory and of insect biogeography from HKU SBS. “Companies and governments need to be more proactive about this and make significant efforts and investments to close these gaps. Counting ants is not a difficult exercise, and citizens around the world, with the right methodology, could be involved to provide a deeper understanding of the changes that occur over time and space.
The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
South West News Service writer Dean Murray contributed to this report.
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