Ants, while tiny, play a huge role in our ecosystems. If ants were to disappear, our food chain would collapse completely, causing virtually every organism to suffer. A new study implies that unless we take action to lower emissions and bring down rising temperatures, this nightmare could become a reality.
The ecological importance of ants cannot be understated. Ants introduce air into the soil, allowing water and oxygen to reach the roots. They also help with seed dispersal and are an integral part of the food web. Ants eat plants, seeds, decaying plant and animal material, as well as termites. They also eat honeydew, which are created by insects called aphids. Interestingly enough, ants even protect aphids from their predators, the ladybugs. Ants also provide food for many animals and even some carnivorous plants.
So when a recent study from researchers at North Carolina State University demonstrated that most ant species are at risk due to climate change, there’s good reason to be concerned. As ectotherms, ants’ body temperatures change along with the external temperature. While some ant species move to higher elevations in response to warming temperatures, this can actually make things more complicated since they may encounter competition when it comes to food, or experience unfamiliar interactions. In the past, the majority of ants had been thought to be able to adapt to the rising temperatures due to their social structure. Unfortunately, this may not be the case.
The study found that ants may actually have a lack of awareness of or inability to adjust to their environment, staying more active in warmer climates than in their preferred cooler climates.
“Warmer times and places make warmer ants, and they’re not adjusting their activity to match their preferred conditions,” says co-author of the study Elsa Youngstadt. The message is loud and clear; if they aren’t able to move or adapt, they die.
This is bad news, considering that ants may actually help stop climate change. A 2014 study found that as the number of ants increased, the climate of the Earth cooled. Scientists discovered that certain ant species break down minerals to make limestone, and this process removes some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The lead author of this study, Ronald Dorn, speculated that through a significant amount of them working together, ants may have removed large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere starting as early as 65 million years ago.
“Ants are changing the environment,” he says.
While more research is still underway, the potential endangerment of ants is definitely a cause for concern. We may end up unintentionally harming a species who could be the key to a better world.