Researchers Create 'Treasure Map' of All the World's Ants

Because there are so many of them, ants have a great impact on ecosystems.

Red ants on stem with aphids
Creativ Studio Heinemann / Getty Images

They’re tiny but mighty, but where exactly are they?

Researchers went looking for all the ants in the world. They created a bit of a treasure map, using technology to locate these tiny creatures with a focus on conservation.

Ants are invertebrates, which are species that lack a backbone or spinal column. More than 90% of the millions of species in the world are invertebrates.

“Most of the animal life on the planet is invertebrates. However, for no major invertebrate group did we have a comprehensive assessment of where all the known species are,” Clinton Jenkins, a conservation biologist at Florida International University and one of the study’s authors, tells Treehugger.

“Ant experts were amazingly collaborative in gathering together all that was known about every ant species, then producing global assessments.”

It’s easy to be intrigued by ants. They have amazing strength in relation to their size and can carry an estimated 10 to 50 times their body weight. Their social behavior is one of the most complex in the insect world. There are at least 14,000 identified ant species. They live together in organized colonies and range in size from about 2 to 25 millimeters (about 0.08 to 1 inch).

Jenkins is fascinated by “their astounding variation in forms and function.” He says, “Ants vary in size by maybe a thousand-fold. They live as predators, farmers, gatherers, and many other lifestyles. Some build what are essentially castles to live in, but then others have tiny homes so small they fit inside an acorn."

And because there are so many of them, ants have a great impact on the world around them.

“Sheer numbers mean they greatly affect many ecosystems, and they penetrate every aspect from below the ground to the tops of canopies,” Jenkins says.

Ant Diversity and Conservation

To chart where the fascinating insects reside, researchers created a global diversity map. They constructed it from more than 14,000 maps (one for each species) and then combined that into a summary.

They referenced those results with information on where others had collected field data on ant observations. Then they were able to predict where more ant species were likely to be discovered. They referred to it as a treasure map.

The findings were published in the journal Science Advances.

“I was surprised at the places people had not been looking so much for ants, like parts of the tropical Andes and Asia. We tend to think that the biologists looking for birds, or mammals, or plants are exploring the same places, but that’s not always the case,” Jenkins says.

“And sometimes you can see where a single very dedicated person could make a dramatic difference, documenting decade after decade the ant diversity of a particular place or country.”

Jenkins joined researchers from the Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) and other universities for the project. He has studied the biodiversity of other species in the past before turning his focus on ants.

“Ants are hugely influential in how ecosystems function,” he says. “In fact, often the small and lesser-known things in the world tend to have extraordinary influence. Perhaps we as large animals have not been giving them appropriate attention, just because they are small.”

View Article Sources
  1. Kass, Jamie M., et al. "The Global Distribution of Known and Undiscovered Ant Biodiversity." Science Advances, vol. 8, no. 31, 2022, doi:10.1126/sciadv.abp9908

  2. "Invertebrate." Britannica.

  3. "Ant Factoids." Ask A Biologist.

  4. "Ant." Britannica.

  5. Clinton Jenkins, a conservation biologist at Florida International University and one of the study’s authors