Ants in Your Pants? It's More Likely Than You Think

Sep 21, 2022

Unless you’re reading this from Greenland or Antarctica, there’s a good chance you’re doing so with ants nearby. After all, we’re sharing the planet with about 20,000,000,000,000,000 (20 quadrillion) of them.

A new study published this week put together data from 489 surveys of ant populations to come up with the number. Researchers call it a conservative estimate. The 20 quadrillion ants represent a biomass of 12 megatons of pure carbon. That's more than all known wild birds and mammals combined. It's equal to 20% of human biomass on the planet.

"It's unimaginable," one of the study’s authors told The Washington Post. "We simply cannot imagine 20 quadrillion ants in one pile, for example. It just doesn't work." 

Yet ants do work. They are vital to the world around them. Their colonies break up soil. That helps water and nutrients reach the roots of plants. They pollinate trees and spread seeds. They remove waste from their habitat. Ants are also a great food source for other animals. Some humans eat ants, too. They're considered a treat.

There are more than 15,700 known species of ant. A majority of them are in tropical areas. As such, knowing how many there are is an important way scientists can monitor the health of often-fragile ecosystems. 

“It’s in humanity’s interest to monitor ant populations,” the study’s authors say. “Counting ants is not difficult, and citizen scientists from all over the world could help investigate how these important animals are faring at a time of great environmental change.” 

Photo by Peter F. Wolf courtesy of Unsplash.

According to the article, what is the most likely reason the study’s authors say, “It’s in humanity’s interest to monitor ant populations”? (Common Core RI.5.1; RI.6.1)
a. Scientists are worried that ant populations will grow too large.
b. Researchers expect to discover many new ant populations.
c. Scientists believe that studying ant populations can teach us about the health of the environment.
d. Scientists think that studying ant populations can inform us about other insects.
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