If ants went extinct the whole ecosystem would be in disarray. While ants may be tiny and may thus seem irrelevant, they are actually very important for the ecosystem and contribute largely to environmental diversity, productivity, and nutrient and energy flow.
Should they disappear, many other organisms will be negatively affected and those that directly depend on them may face extinction as well.
In this article, we’ll look more into how ants benefit the ecosystem and discuss the likely effects of their extinction.
Why Are Ants So Important To The Ecosystem?
Ecologists consider ants to be a keystone species given the impact that they have on regulating the ecosystem. They can be predators, ecosystem engineers, and play pretty much all the roles of symbiotic relationships and therefore, directly or indirectly support and affect other organisms. As such they provide a number of contributions:
Many ant species dig and tunnel underground to build their nests. In doing so they aerate the soil which allows for the better penetration of water, air, and nutrients to the plant roots. This in turn helps plants grow more vigorously.
Improving Soil Health And Quality
As ants forage, they naturally bring organic matter into the soil as they bring food into their underground nests. When these organic matter decompose, they become natural fertilizers that nourish the soil and improve both soil health and quality. Similar to soil aeration, this results in the growth of healthier crops and plants.
While ants aren’t considered to be the best pollinators, they do still contribute as pollen vectors. Ants regularly visit flowers and any pollen that attaches to their bodies may then get transported to other flowers. In fact some plant species such as the Polygonum cascadence and the Conospermum undulatum, are regularly pollinated by ants.
Not only do ants help with germination, they’re also considered to be a major force in seed dispersal. Biologists have found that there are more than 3000 species of flowering plants from different types of habitats that are dispersed by ants.
As predators, ants can provide biological control of different pests that affect crops and plants. For example, farmers from northern Australia use ants to control mosquitoes, bugs, and moths which cause damage to cashew trees and negatively affect harvest quality. They’re also used by coconut growers to prevent immature nut fall caused by plant bugs and caterpillars.
Serve As Food
Ants aren’t the only ones doing the eating. They also serve as food for a number of animals such as birds, mammals, and other insects. They’re even consumed by us humans and are in fact considered delicacies in certain parts of the world.
Given their abundance and close connection to the ecosystem, ants are often used to determine the health and quality of an ecosystem or habitat. Changes in the richness of ants species and structural composition have been shown to reflect general ecological change.
For example, a study has shown that the nest structure for Lasius niger and Myrmica rubra ants vary depending on the level of anthropogenic stress. The higher the level of pollution, the smaller the mounds of their nests while the number of underground nests grows. With this, the ratio of the mound versus the underground can then potentially be used as a bioindicator for level of pollution.
Ants play a role in keeping the environment clean. As detritivores or decomposers, ants break down organic waste matter and help prevent such waste build-up. More importantly, through the breaking down of organic waste, they help recycle nutrients and make them available to primary producers which in turn provide energy and nutrients to us and other animals.
What Would Happen If Ants Went Extinct?
Given the different contributions they provide, it’s quite plain to see what a disaster it will be for the ecosystem if ants go extinct. Should they be gone the ecosystem will suffer in the following ways:
Reduced Soil Quality
Without ants, soil wouldn’t be as healthy. Lack of aeration leads to deprivation of oxygen which slows down essential microbial activity in the soil. It may also lead to the development of certain toxins and disease. Additionally, soil will have less nutrients in general given there are no longer ants that take organic matter underground.
Reduced soil quality leads to unhealthy plants. There are again the lesser nutrients that ants will be able to access, oxygen deprivation, and the diseases that develop due to poor soil, all of which, may lead to weaker plants or even plant death.
Ants are considered to be primary predators of many arthropods, hence the reason they’re biological control agents. Without them, these other arthropods may grow to undesired numbers and therefore create a ripple effect that will affect other organisms as well.
For example, pest populations may grow largely and negatively affect crops and plants.
There’s also the high likelihood that ants going extinct may lead to more extinctions. For example, the fungi that leafcutter ants cultivate have developed a relationship with such leafcutters that they can’t survive without them. So if ants go extinct, they too shall follow.
Studies have found that the extinction of one species may lead to the extinction of others, even if the species involved don’t directly interact with each other. So while organisms that depend solely or primarily on ants will be at most risk, even those that don’t can be in danger.
Can We Survive Without Ants?
It’s difficult to tell how the loss of ants will ultimately affect us humans or if we can survive without them. I’d wager that we can survive given our ability to adapt to situations and create solutions. However, there is certainly a possibility that we will follow ants to extinction.
If it comes to a point where many other organisms go extinct as well, we may end up having less and less resources such as food.
Aren’t Ants Replaceable?
There are other organisms that contribute to the ecosystem in some of the ways that ants do. For example, earthworms do their part in loosening and aerating soil. There are also bees which help with pollination, and many other animals that can try and fill-in for ants and the contributions they provide.
So, is it actually a big deal if they go extinct given that these other organisms exist? Well, it’s true that these organisms can somehow provide similar contributions as ants. However, if we take into consideration just how many ants there are in the world, then there’s no way for these organisms to replace them.
Scientists believe that there are a total of 20 quadrillion ants on Earth. They outnumber us 2.5 million to one and they make up 20% of the world’s biomass. Think of the impact that all these ants have on the environment and what would happen if they somehow ceased to exist.
Are Ants In Danger Of Extinction?
The numbers can be deceiving. While it would seem that ants are by no means in any trouble given their enormous population, they are most definitely in danger of extinction. Many ant species have already gone extinct, and as of now there are hundreds of ant species currently on the IUCN red list of threatened species, three of which are classified to be critically endangered.
The extinction or threatened status of certain ant species can be mostly attributed to human activity. Pollution, the use of pesticides, urbanization, and the general exploitation of their habitats, all lead to the decline in ant population. Other factors such as climate change and the addition of introduced or alien species also contribute to such decline.
If we don’t put effort into the conservation of ants and many other animals, then we could expect that unimaginable number of 20 quadrillion to go lower and lower until it eventually reaches zero.
To summarize, if ants were to become extinct then we and the organisms of the world will most likely suffer. They contribute so much to the ecosystem that should they be gone, some if not many of these organisms that directly or indirectly depend on them are likely to go extinct as well.
As mentioned, the extinction of one species or in this case, one entire type of animal, can lead to others, and given the impact that ants have, there’s no saying just how catastrophic of a ripple effect their extinction may cause.