Scientists Calculate the ‘Unimaginable’ Number of Ants on Earth

by Lauren Boisvert

Now that’s a scientific outdoor endeavor I can get behind. Who hasn’t wondered just how many ants there are in the world? It’s something that has plagued me in the small hours, just thinking about the possible number of ants on this planet. I’d given it up as being unknowable, just one of those infinite human mysteries. But, there’s a new estimate as to how many ants there really are, and I’m all in again.

According to a paper released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, there are nearly 20 quadrillion individual ants on this planet. A group of scientists from the University of Hong Kong conducted the study. They gathered data from 489 studies on the subject, concluding that the total mass of ants on the planet is equal to “about 12 megatons of dry carbon,” according to a report from the Washington Post.

A megaton is equal to about one million tons on its own. We’re dealing with about 12 million tons of ants. To put it a different way, there are about 2.5 million ants for every person on Earth.

“It’s unimaginable,” said Patrick Schultheiss, a researcher at the University of Würzburg and one of the lead authors of the study. “We simply cannot imagine 20 quadrillion ants in one pile, for example. It just doesn’t work.”

The researchers on the study combined data from over a century of studies regarding the number of ants on the planet. This involved papers by “thousands of authors in many different countries,” said Schultheiss. “It’s a truly global effort that goes into these numbers.”

Researchers Determine New Estimate of Total Number of Ants on Earth

According to the Washington Post, there are two ways that researchers collect data regarding ant populations. One method is gathering samples of leaf litter. The other is creating pitfalls–usually created with a plastic cup–and waiting for ants to fall in. From there, scientists can determine what species is living in what part of the planet. This requires the cooperation of researchers all over the world.

Biologist, naturalist, myrmecologist (ant scientist), and leading expert on ants E.O. Wilson once said, “No matter where I go — except possibly Antarctica or the high Arctic, and I don’t go there because there are no ants there — no matter how different the human culture, no matter how different the natural environment, there are the ants.”

He’s right, and we’re right to quote him here. As for declining insect populations, which many scientists and researchers are currently concerned about, there’s just no way to know for sure if ants are affected.  “To be honest,” said Schultheiss, “we have no idea.” According to Sabine Nooten, co-lead author of the study, that’s the next question they want to answer.