A team of international researchers is shining a light on the often understudied “little things that run the world” — ants.
With the help of cutting-edge technology, the researchers created a first-of-its-kind global biodiversity map to begin answering a long unanswered question about where ants can be found across the globe. Lurking in this map is another one, a so-called treasure map, to guide future research and exploration into unexplored regions where undiscovered species may be found. This data is the first step in protecting and conserving ant biodiversity. The findings were recently published in Science Advances.
“Much of our knowledge of biodiversity, and our planning of conservation, has been based on other animals, like mammals, reptiles and birds,” said Clinton Jenkins, an FIU conservation biologist in the Department of Earth and Environment and the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, as well as one of the study’s authors. “This is a major leap forward in our understanding of life on the planet and its conservation status.”
Ants — thought to be nature’s most industrious insects — often toil away, carrying out many jobs and juggling important responsibilities. They are hunters, farmers, harvesters, gliders, herders, weavers and carpenters. They carry and disperse seeds from one place to another. They dig holes in the ground to aerate and turn over the soil, helping plants grow. They even keep pests in check. They are one of nature’s smallest creatures with the biggest impact on entire ecosystems.
While there’s still much to learn about them, what’s clear is that the world wouldn’t be the world without ants.
“When I started looking into this more than a decade ago, it was so fascinating to realize the number of effects ants have on an ecosystem,” Jenkins said. “There are tens of thousands of types of ants, and in some places, they are key for the ecosystem to function. If you lose ants, other species could disappear. Yes, ants might be small, but they have a huge impact.”
The findings were featured on the cover of Science Advances.
Jenkins — who has studied the biodiversity of other species — joined a team from the Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) and other universities to embark on this ambitious project of pinpointing where in the world ants are.
Museum records, field observations and data extracted from academic research papers told part of the story. Because some species are found in more than one location, the researchers turned to computers to build better predictive models of the distribution of each species.
“This study helps to add ants, and terrestrial invertebrates in general, to the discussion on biodiversity conservation,” said Evan Economo, professor at the Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit. “We need to know the locations of high diversity centers of invertebrates so that we know the areas that can be the focus of future research and environmental protection.”
Okinawa in southern Japan is one of these high diversity centers. The team found many ant species in this area have small ranges — meaning this location is critically important to conserve biodiversity.
The team also looked at how well-protected these areas of high ant diversity are. They found only 15% of the top 10% of ant rarity centers had some sort of legal protection, such as a national park or reserve.
The team hopes this study will encourage more research and the discovery of unknown species, in the hopes of beginning to assess and determine whether some species are of conservation concern. In some ant species colonies, there can be a million ants or more. In others, a colony may only have fewer than a hundred. So, it may be true there are a lot of ants all around the world. But that doesn’t mean they don’t face threats from habitat reduction or destruction. As Jenkins points out, you can’t know whether a species is at risk of extinction if you don’t even know it exists.