Who rules the world? Ants.

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In September, scientists at the University of Hong Kong released the most comprehensive ant census ever.

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The figures are so big they seem made up.

The study calculates that there are at least 20 quadrillion — that’s 20,000,000,000,000 — of ants on Earth.

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That is, some 2.5 million of ants for every human being.

And because the study was based on a conservative estimate of tree-dwelling ants and didn’t include underground ants, the census is almost certainly an underestimate.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be an order of magnitude higher,” said Sabine Nooten, lead author of the study. The New York Times.

The figures surprised me. Like perhaps all children, I went through a period of intense childhood obsession with ants, spending endless summer afternoons in the backyard observing the mystery and majesty of ant life:

how many there were, how elegantly arranged they were, how terribly busy they seemed.

What has always fascinated me about ants is how their similarities to humanity—they live in society, have jobs, and endure the drudgery of daily commutes—are counterbalanced by an incomprehensible alienation.

Much of ant life is meaningless to us:

There is an abject altruism, the submission of the individual to the collective.

There is an absence of leadership or coordination, their lives are dictated by instinct and algorithm, from which collective intelligence emerges.

The way they navigate and communicate through chemical signals, creating road signs from pheromones and not getting stuck in traffic jams.

But the census of four billion ants made me think about ants in a way I never have before:

as a social species not only markedly different from our own, but in many respects unquestionably superior.

Ants, I keep thinking, are an example for humanity to imitate.

Over tens of millions of years of evolution, ants figured out how to grow incredibly numerous without depleting the world around them.

In fact, quite the opposite is true: because they provide so many important functions to their habitats, they are “the little things that run the world,” as the great sociobiologist and ant enthusiast EO Wilson once wrote of ants and other invertebrates. .

It is natural that, as human beings, we think of our species as something special.

However, according to many objective measures, ants are much more important for life on Earth than we are.

Wilson pointed out that if people disappeared, little in the world would change for the worse; if ants and other invertebrates did, almost everything would suffer.

Ants air the soil transports the seeds and favors their decomposition; its mounds serve as dense oases of nutrients that are the basis for a wide range of life forms.

their importance to life on the planet, not to mention their large population, shouldn’t we have a better concept than ants?

They are one of the most sophisticated and successful life forms to ever walk the earth.

Humans are, of course, smarter and bigger than ants, and in the last 300,000 year reign of our species, we have conquered the planet and seized its resources to a degree perhaps unmatched in the history of life.

But compared to those of ants and other social insects – bees, termites and the occasional wasp – our record is a hilarious blink of an eye.

Ants have been around for 140 million years.

They are a dominant feature – often some major ecosystem engineer – of nearly every terrestrial ecosystem on Earth.

And they are the real inventors of what we consider the various human activities par excellence.

Ants have been engaged in agriculture for at least 60 million years.

Leaf cutter ants, for example, seek out vegetation which they use to grow a crop. fungus which they have domesticated for their exclusive use.

Other ants maintain herds of aphids that feed on plant sap; the ants then “milk” the aphids with their sugar-rich secretions.

Ants are also master architects, formidable warriors who can also forcefully keep the peace and even engage in compromises and kind of democracy.

Ants aren’t always good neighbors.

But even when they are ecologically disruptive, they have much to teach us about cooperation.

In the last century the Argentine antan invasive species that has joined humans in spreading from South America to much of the rest of the world, has ruled the planet forming a surprising and perhaps evolutionarily new organizational structure:

the super colony

These are huge ant colonies in which individuals mix freely between different nests spread over enormous distances.

The ants do this because, in their adaptation to their new lands, they have drastically reduced their aggressiveness, which allows them to form much larger groups.

A super colony of Argentine ants stretches nearly 6,000 kilometers from Italy to Spain.

It is “the largest cooperative unit on record,” according to one study.

This kind of social flexibility is a key part of ant success.

It’s hard to imagine that in a few million years, humans will continue to be one of the dominant life forms on the planet.

But the ants?

His antics will surely live on.

In a paper published this year, ecologists Catherine Parr and Tom Bishop suggest that even climate change, our species’ great blot on the planet, may not be a major calamity for ants, whose social structure will allow them to “meteorological environmental changes to a much greater extent than in solitary organisms”.

Which is actually no surprise.

The ants were here before us and will probably outlive us for a long time.

They manage the place.

We are just visiting.

c.2022 The New York Times Company

Source: Clarin

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