How many ants live on the planet? It is definitely a question we have asked ourselves.

Today's research provides an approximate answer. About 20 quadrillion ants are estimated by us. 20,000,000,000,000,000 is 20 thousand million millions or in numerical form.

The world's ants comprise about 12 million tons of carbon. This surpasses the mass of all the animals on the planet. It is equal to 20% of the total weight of humans.

The little things that run the world are insects and other insturments.

Nature is very important because of ants. Ant roles include aerate the soil, distribute seeds, break down organic material, create habitat for other animals and form an important part of the food chain.

Estimating ant numbers and mass can be used to monitor ant populations.

Counting the world's ants

There are more than 15000 species and subspecies of ants. The ants' high degree of social organization has allowed them to colonize nearly all of the world.

The number of ants has caused many people to ponder their exact number.

These were guesses made with knowledge. Evidence-based estimates have been lacking.

Our research looked at studies of ant populations conducted by other ant scientists. Non-English literature included Spanish, French, German, Russian, Mandarin, and Portuguese.

All continents and major habitats were covered in the research. They used standardized methods to collect and count ants. This is a lot of work.

We think there are around 20 quadrillion ants on Earth. The figure is between two and 20 times higher than before.

The previous figures assumed that ants make up about 1 percent of the world's insect population.

Our bottom-up estimate is more reliable because it uses data from the field and makes less assumptions.

We had to figure out how much the ants weighed. The mass of organisms is determined by their carbon makeup.

20 quadrillion average-sized ants correspond to a dry weight of around 12 million tons of carbon.

This is more than the combined amount of wild birds and mammals.

Half the weight of an ant is carbon. The total mass of the world's ants would increase if the weight of other bodily elements were included.

On Earth, ants are distributed in different ways. In the tropics, they vary sixfold between habitats. Maintaining a healthy ant population is important to tropical regions.

Surprisingly, ants were abundant in arid areas. They are less common in human made habitats.

There are a few things that come with our findings. The sampling locations in our data are distributed in different ways.

We don't have a lot of information about ant numbers in trees or underground because most of the samples were collected from the ground. Our findings are not complete.

Two ants carrying a seed.
Many ant species are important seed dispersers. Here, two worker Meranoplus ants carry a seed back to their nest. (Francois Brassard)

We all need ants

Humans rely on ants for important services. A recent study shows ants are more effective than pesticides at helping farmers produce food.

Some species can't survive without ants.

Some birds use ants to get rid of their prey. Thousands of plant species feed or house ants in exchange for protection.

Climate change, habitat destruction, and chemical use are some of the threats to the insect population.

Data on insect diversity is hard to come by. Our study will provide a baseline for further research.

Humans are interested in monitoring ant populations. citizen scientists from all over the world could help investigate how ants are faring at a time when the environment is changing.

Mark Wong is a Forrest Fellow at The University of Western Australia.

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