These Australian Ants Are Bucking the 'Insect Apocalypse' Trend

The northern Australian desert is home to many species of ants, some of which have flourished amid heavy rains over the last two decades. Alexandra Lang/Shutterstock

Some insects don't seem to have gotten the memo about end of the world.

Despite increasingly stark scientific warnings about the state of bug-kind — including a recent report suggesting 40 percent of the world's insect populations are in steep decline — Australia's desert ants march to the beat of a much happier drum: When life gives you Armageddon, make Armageddon-ade.

According to a study published this week in the Journal of Animal Ecology, tyrant ants are flourishing amid the wild swings in weather, including unpredictable torrents of rainfall.

The scientists have been monitoring ants in northern Australia's Simpson Desert for the last 22 years, noting their responses to increasingly intense and frequent heat waves and rainfall that ranges wildly from 3 to 22 inches.

"While this unpredictability in rainfall is expected in hot climates, this is the first time we've been able to understand how insects respond to such large inconsistencies in their environment," Heloise Gibb, an insect ecologist at Australia's La Trobe University notes in a press release. "For many species, this unpredictability — exacerbated by climate change — would equate to increasingly difficult conditions for their survival."

But not for the tyrant ant.

tyrant ants, Rhytidoponera mayri workers
These are worker tyrant ants, or Rhytidoponera mayri. Associate Professor Heloise Gibb, La Trobe University

In fact, these aggressive sugar eaters are enjoying a population boom — the likely result, researchers say, of increasing rainfall as well as human efforts to prop up ailing ecosystems.

For a critter traditionally stuck in the desert, climate change has become a veritable bonanza.

"Water is the driving factor for this species' survival," Gibb adds. And with so much of it falling on the Simpson Desert in recent years, their numbers have correspondingly swelled.

"Following rainfall, plants grow, flower and seed, providing honeydew, nectar and a food source for other invertebrates that the tyrant ants consume," Gibb explains.

And then there's the second key factor influencing their surge: the hands of inadvertent human kindness.

About a decade ago, the site of the study was purchased by conservationists looking to bolster the local ecosystem. They gradually eliminated cattle grazing, which may have proven another boon for tyrant ants.

An any hill in the desert
Ants hunker down in their burrows during heat waves and emerge after heavy rain. Wright Out There/Shutterstock

"While it's difficult to explicitly link this management change with ant responses, we believe this change was also critical in driving ecosystem change that eventually improved conditions for ants, allowing them to boom in response to extreme rainfall events," Gibb notes. "Active conservation efforts, funded by the public, can have very positive effects on biodiversity."

And ants are pretty savvy survivalists to begin with.

The researchers found when conditions were less than favorable — a prolonged heat wave, for instance — the little tyrants retired to their underground bunker. But when big rainfalls drenched the desert, they emerged like a conquering army to claim the ecological bounty.

Make no mistake, "insect Armageddon" is painfully real. The term is derived from an influential study published last April suggesting Germany's total biomass of flying insects plummeted by 75 percent over the last 25 years — a trend that could have dire consequences for not only insect-kind, but all life on this planet.

"It is very rapid," lead author and University of Sydney professor Francisco Sanchez-Bayo told The Guardian at the time. "In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none."

Except, perhaps, for those crafty tyrant ants, who may be among the few species writing their own, more hopeful chapter in the chronicle of their kind: How to stop worrying and learn to love the apocalypse.