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The social nature of ants will help them tolerate climate change

In a new study from the University of Liverpool, experts set out to determine how ants will respond to climate change. According to the researchers, the answer is complicated. Overall, they found that the social nature of ants will enable them to adapt to climate change in ways that will not be possible for solitary organisms.

“Ants are one of the most dominant terrestrial organisms worldwide. They are hugely abundant, both in terms of sheer numbers and biomass, on every continent except Antarctica and are deeply embedded within a diversity of ecological networks and processes,” wrote the study authors. 

“Ants are also eusocial and colonial organisms – their life cycle is built on the labor of sterile worker ants who support a small number of reproductive individuals. Given the climatic changes that our planet faces, we need to understand how various important taxonomic groups will respond; this includes the ants.”

The researchers reviewed existing studies on ants and their response to temperature changes. The results of the analysis suggest that some populations should have no trouble adapting to a warming climate. 

For example, ants that nest underground will be less vulnerable to rising temperatures. These groups will have the option to relocate to lower, cooler areas. Ants in the world’s more temperate regions will also be able to tolerate – and possibly even benefit from – higher temperatures. 

“How climate change affects ant populations and the wider impact this will have on the ecosystem is not particularly well understood. This study sheds new light on this issue,” said lead author Professor Kate Parr. 

“Ants are the most dominant insect in almost all ecosystems and play key roles in many ecosystem processes so any changes to their abundance and loss of some species will therefore have cascading consequences through the ecosystem.”

“Our research highlights those species and regions at risk from climate change but also those that may be capable of adapting to it.”

According to Professor Parr, further research is needed to better understand how ants respond to altered precipitation, carbon dioxide or ultraviolet radiation levels. 

“Across the globe, ants are considered key contributors to many ecosystem processes, including seed dispersal, pest control, and soil bioturbation, and are thought to structure invertebrate communities via predation and competition,” wrote the study authors. 

“In consequence, changes to ant abundance and occurrence patterns due to ongoing climate change are likely to have significant implications for the structure, integrity, and functioning of terrestrial ecosystems.”

The study is published in the journal Global Change Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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