They are hunters, farmers, harvesters, gliders, herders, weavers and carpenters. They are ants, and they are a big part of our world, comprising more than  14,000 species and a large fraction of animal biomass in most terrestrial ecosystems.

Like other invertebrates, ants play vital roles in the functioning of ecosystems, from aerating soils and dispersing seeds and nutrients to scavenging and preying on other species.

Yet a global view of their diversity has been lacking.

But an international team of researchers led by the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology and including a University of Michigan ecologist has developed a high-resolution map that combines existing knowledge with machine learning to estimate and visualize the global diversity of ants.

The team’s findings were published online Aug. 3 in Science Advances. 

“This study helps to add ants, and terrestrial invertebrates in general, to the discussion on biodiversity conservation,” said Evan Economo of the Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. “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.” 

The resource will also serve to answer many biological and evolutionary questions, such as how life diversified and how patterns in diversity arose, said Economo, who was a Michigan Fellow at U-M from 2009 to 2012. 

“The earliest naturalists recognized broad-scale patterns of biodiversity, but mostly for the vertebrates and plants,” said U-M ecologist and study co-author Nate Sanders. “This impressive collaboration provides the first high-resolution biodiversity map of where ecology’s movers and shakers—the ants—are.”

Please click here to read the full Michigan News article.