Reasons to Believe

More Reasons to Thank God for Ants

I must confess that even though I have written extensively about how blessed we humans are to be living on a planet that is infested with ants, I don’t always appreciate it when one of the infestations invades our home. A year ago, Kathy and I and our two sons were experiencing multiple bites from fire ants in our house. Kathy especially was suffering and demanded that I go outside, find out where the ants were coming from, and annihilate them all! When I went outside I discovered at least a dozen ant hills running all along the side of the house. I quickly realized that this was a job for a professional and called upon one of our neighbors who owns an extermination company. Our home has been ant-free ever since. However, as I told Kathy, for a number of reasons we should be grateful that there are lots of ants elsewhere.

In terms of biomass we humans are far from the dominant land animal on Earth. Lowly ants possess the greatest total mass of all land-dwelling animals. Ants comprise 15–25 percent of the total mass of living land animal tissue. In my book Improbable Planet,1 and in a previous article2 on our website, I described how Earth’s extremely high population of ants saved us from being scorched to death by the heat of the Sun.

Now, thanks to two recently published research papers, we have even more reasons to be grateful for God creating such huge populations of ants. The first is a paper3 published by Alejandro Farji-Brener and Victoria Werenkraut. Farji-Brener and Werenkraut investigated the effect of ant nests on soil fertility and plant health and fitness. Their study affirmed that ants are “one of the major sources of soil disturbance world-wide.”4  They also established that “ant nests showed higher nutrient and cation content than adjacent non-nest soil samples.”5  The nutrient content was higher in ant refuse materials than in the ant nests.

Farji-Brener and Werenkraut showed that ant nests particularly benefit plants in their vicinity. They concluded, “Plants showed higher green/root biomass and fitness on ant nests soils than in adjacent, non-nest sites.”6 Moreover, Farji-Brener and Werenkraut commented that we need to recognize the important role that ants fulfill as “ecological engineers.”7   

In the second paper, a team of seven ecologists studied the role that ants perform in the removal of detritus from the forest floors of tropical rain forests.8 Their study in Malaysian jungles demonstrated that, when the entire detritus foraging community had access to the food resources in the detritus, ants were responsible for the removal of 52 percent of the total detritus. Where detritus-consuming vertebrates were removed from the environment, ants were then responsible for 61 percent of the total detritus removal.

The seven ecologists showed that in the absence of ants, no other animals or community of animals is able to remove enough forest floor detritus to prevent catastrophic ecological consequences. What are these consequences? Dead material would build up on the forest floors and decompose much more slowly. Not only would this make the soil environment less diverse and less nutrient rich, it would release chemicals toxic to plant roots and the plants themselves.

It is not just the removal of forest floor detritus by ants that is ecologically beneficial. The ants transport the forest floor detritus to their nests, where, through their consumption and body wastes, they create nutrient-rich hotspots that cause plants and microbes in the vicinity of their nests to thrive.

Ants were created recently in Earth’s history. Not until the Paleogene period (66–23 million years ago) did the number of ant species and the populations of ants begin to balloon. Ants paved the way for humanity’s arrival and the possibility of human civilization. While an ant infestation in one of our homes might not make our gratitude list, now we have several reasons to thank God for creating such an abundance of them everywhere else on our planet for our benefit and for the benefit of all other life.

Featured image credit: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos.com.au

Endnotes

  1. Hugh Ross, Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity’s Home (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), 195, 197.
  2. Hugh Ross, “Ants: Amazing Agents of Change,” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog), Reasons to Believe, January 1, 2015, http://www.reasons.org/articles/ants-amazing-agents-of-change.
  3. Alejandro G. Farji-Brener and Victoria Werenkraut, “The Effects of Ant Nests on Soil Fertility and Plant Performance: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Animal Ecology 86 (July 2017): 868–77, doi:10.1111/1365-2656.12672.
  4. Farji-Brener and Werenkraut, “Effects of Ant Nests,” 868.
  5. Farji-Brener and Werenkraut, “Effects of Ant Nests,” 868.
  6. Farji-Brener and Werenkraut, “Effects of Ant Nests,” 868.
  7. Farji-Brener and Werenkraut, “Effects of Ant Nests,” 868.
  8. Hannah M. Griffiths et al., “Ants Are the Major Agents of Resource Removal from Tropical Rainforests,” Journal of Animal Ecology. Published ahead of print, August 8, 2017, doi:10.1111/1365-2656.12728.

Subjects: Animals, Earth Science, Human Flourishing, Plants, Sun, Symbiosis