Researchers in Germany have gone through the scientific literature to come up with the number of ants there are on earth.
The scientists, from Julius Maximilians University (JMU), say they began the study because there hadn’t been a reliable estimate of the total number of ants on the planet, or how common they were in different habitats.
They consulted 489 scientific studies discussing the matter, covering all continents and habitats, and from that data, they calculated what they say is a conservative empirical estimate.
According to the team, there are almost 20 quadrillion ants on Earth right now. That’s a 20 with 15 zeroes, which is a number that’s hard to really understand. For context, there are 2,000 times more ants on Earth than there are stars in our galaxy.
The team also estimated how much all these ants would weigh together – about 12 million tons. That’s more than the total mass of all wild birds and mammals combined (except us humans).
The researchers discovered that ants are concentrated in the tropics, with forests and deserts nesting in higher amounts and urban environments having less. Polar regions are simply ant-free.
The team says that since ants play such an outsized role in their ecosystems, it’s important to understand their distribution and how they might be affected by climate change.
“Per hectare, ants move up to 13 tons of soil mass per year,” said Patrick Schultheiss, co-lead author of the study. “So they have a great influence on maintaining the nutrient cycle and also play a decisive role in the distribution of plant seeds.”
The research was published in the journal PNAS.