Follow for more talkers

Wildlife

Scientists have calculated how many ants live on Earth

Their "conservative" estimate is 20 quadrillion. That's a lot of zeros.

Published

on

Close up of a red leaf cutter ant focussed on stripping down the fresh green leves on the plants in tropical Costa Rica
A leafcutter ant in Costa Rica. (Nature's Charm via Shutterstock)

By Dean Murray via SWNS

Ever wondered how many ants were on Earth?

Scientists have tackled the creepy crawly query and come up with a mind-boggling conclusion:

There are 20,000,000,000,000,000 (20 with fifteen zeros) ants on the planet.

The question has been addressed by a team from the Insect Biodiversity and Biogeography Laboratory of the School of Biological Sciences (SBS) at The University of Hong Kong (HKU).

macho of working leaf cutter ants bringing fresh cut vegetation back to their nest
(Nature's Charm via Shutterstock)

In a recent publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS) they explain: "The astounding ubiquity of ants has prompted many naturalists to contemplate their exact number on Earth, but systematic and empirically derived estimates are lacking.

"Integrating data from all continents and major biomes, we conservatively estimate 20 × 1015 (20 quadrillion) ants on Earth, with a total biomass of 12 megatons of dry carbon.

"This exceeds the combined biomass of wild birds and mammals and equals 20% of human biomass."

An HKU spokesperson said: "While these questions may appear trivial at first, they have enormous implications for our understanding of natural processes since ants are such key players in most ecosystems and have numerous and complex interactions with other organisms."

Dr. Patrick Schultheiss, a lead author of the new study explained: “For decades, ant researchers have been incredibly busy studying ant communities the world over.

"They have collected thousands of ant samples to identify the species and often counted all the ants as well when publishing their results in scientific articles.

"We were able to compile such data from nearly 500 different studies from all over the world and written in many different languages.

"In this way, we have been able to quantify the density of ants in various parts of the globe, and also to estimate the total number of ants on Earth.”

Close up of red leaf cutter ants focussed on stripping down the fresh greens on the plants in tropical Costa Rica
Red leafcutter ants at work in tropical Costa Rica. (Nature's Charm via Shutterstock)

Sabine Nooten, also lead author and recently moved from Hong Kong to Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg, clarifies: "According to our estimates, the global ant population is 20 x 10 to the power of 15 – that is, 20 quadrillion animals. That is a 20 with 15 zeros, which is hard to grasp and appreciate."

The study highlights the central role ants play in terrestrial ecosystems but also major ecological and geographic gaps in our current knowledge.

The researchers conclude: "Our results provide a crucial baseline for exploring environmental drivers of ant-abundance patterns and for tracking the responses of insects to environmental change."

Stories and infographics by ‘Talker Research’ are available to download & ready to use. Stories and videos by ‘Talker News’ are managed by SWNS. To license content for editorial or commercial use and to see the full scope of SWNS content, please email licensing@swns.com or submit an inquiry via our contact form.

Top Talkers