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On the conservative side, there are some 2.5 million ants for every person on Earth
Who would win in a fight, you or 2.5 million ants?
In the 1998 animated film Antz — spoilers ahead — an ant colony is threatened from within when General Mandible, the head of the colony’s military, secretly builds a mega tunnel beneath a large puddle in an attempt to kill the queen and take over the colony. In spite of our hero’s best efforts, the tunnel breaks through and the colony is flooded. That should have been curtains for the ants inside, but they had one last trick up their figurative sleeves: The ants band together, building a ladder out of their own bodies to lift themselves out of the flood.
Ants do something similar in real life. Some species of ant are known to bind their bodies together into complex configurations in order to build bridges over obstacles in their environment. It suggests a level of cooperation and collaborative intelligence not often seen in the animal kingdom. Working together is how ants not only survive but thrive in nearly every ecosystem on the planet.
They’re one of the most successful types of animals on the planet but until recently no one was really sure exactly how successful ants are. Now, scientists from the University of Hong Kong have completed the first global population estimate for ants. The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
The only way to get a true count of all the ants on Earth — or any organism for that matter — is to get out there and count them. For obvious reasons, that wasn’t feasible, but scientists found a way to arrive at a well-educated guess. The team performed a metanalysis of 489 previous studies of ant populations all over the world. The studied species included representatives from every continent except for Antarctica of course.
Using the available data, scientists crunched the numbers to find out approximately how many ants there are in the world. Once they’d considered all the variables and carried all the ones, they landed at an estimated 20 quadrillion individual ants. To put that in perspective, there are about 8 billion people alive today. If you were to put a mark on a piece of paper once every second, it would take you a little more than 253 years to make 8 billion marks. Making 20 quadrillion marks at one mark per second would take about 634 million years. We’re dealing with numbers so vast they’re nearly impossible to really wrap our minds around.
In terms of pure mass, the team estimates that the world’s ants are the equivalent of about 12 megatons of dry carbon. That’s more than the collected mass of all wild birds and non-human mammals. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s only about one-fifth of the total mass of humans. That means that if each of us had to fight our fair share of ants, they could stack together into a 1/5 scale model of a person. That unholy exoskeletal mech suit would be made up of approximately 2.5 million ants.
Somehow, those values paint entirely different and counterintuitive pictures. Fighting a tiny creature one-fifth our size made up entirely of ants sounds like a breeze. Fighting 2.5 million ants all at the same time sounds like an efficient way to clean your skeleton before it goes on display. It’s also worth noting the researchers believe that estimate is conservative. There are likely countless ants we don’t yet know about.
In addition to figuring out exactly how worried we should be about any eventual ant uprisings, the research goes further than simply estimating the global population. It also creates a detailed map of ant distribution across the planet. This can provide a baseline to future scientists as they study ants. Having an eye toward population growth or decline in different ecosystems could serve as an early warning system for climate decline.
The success of ants ultimately translates to success for us. Ants redistribute literal tons of soil every year. That redistribution helps to prevent soil from becoming impacted, moves nutrients around, and helps to scatter seeds. Ants are also a critical part of the decomposition cycle, helping to break down dead plant and animal matter.
With all of that in mind, it might be time we start playing nice with ants. Let them have a crumb of your sandwich if they want it. They’ve earned it and they’ve got superior numbers.