An Overview of the Species and Ecological Diversity of Ants


Since their appearance during the Cretaceous, ants have diversified to become today the most diverse group of social insects and one of the most influential groups of organisms on the planet. More than 12 500 species of ants are presently described, distributed within 21 subfamilies, with a large majority of the species belonging to only four subfamilies. Ants are present in almost all terrestrial ecosystems, their peak of diversity is found within the tropical regions, and ant richness tends to decline both with increasing latitude and altitude. In most ecosystems the ecological importance of ants, involved in numerous interactions with organisms ranging from bacteria, plants, fungi, arthropods to vertebrates, plays a critical role in the survival or control of many species. Finally, despite the tremendous efforts to understand ant biology over the past decades, the ecology of most species is still poorly understood and many new species are expected to be discovered.

Key Concepts:

  • Ants, Formicidae, appeared during the Cretaceous period.

  • Modern ants arise during the Eocene period and then became an important part of insect communities.

  • More than 12 500 species of ants are known today, with many species still unknown, and most of the current species belong to four subfamilies: the Myrmicinae, Formicinae, Ponerinae and Dolichoderinae.

  • Like many other organisms, ants present a latitudinal gradient of species richness, with the highest richness found within the tropical regions.

  • Ant species richness tends to decrease with elevation, and become extremely scarce for an elevation above 2500 m, but can be present up to 4800 m.

  • Through herbivory, predation or mutualistic interactions, ants contribute to the regulation and survival of many organisms.

  • The modifications of the abiotic conditions within and around the nest ants occupy create favourable habitats for many organisms and as such ants can be perceived as ecosystem engineers.

  • Much work, especially in taxonomy, ecology and biogeography of ants is still needed to fully address questions related to large‐scale patterns and processes by which ants became and are still successful.

Keywords: ants; biogeography; Myrmicinae; Formicinae; Ponerinae; Dolichoderinae; predation; mutualism; ecosystem engineers

Figure 1.

Timeline of the origin of ants and its four main subfamilies.

Figure 2.

(a) Thaumatomyrmex species with specialised pitch‐forked mandibules allowing them to manipulate their hairy preys, the polyxenid millipedes, while ‘shaving’ them. (b) Worker of the fungus‐growing ant genus Apterostigma carrying a piece of mycelium within the nest. (c) Workers of a Neotropical species of Pheidole bringing back a prey item (here a Coleoptera) to their nest. Photographs by Benoit Guénard.

Figure 3.

Expected generic diversity as a function of latitude for political regions (modified after data in Guénard et al.) for the New World (green circles) and the Old World, with a separation between the West Palaearctic and the Ethiopian regions (blue circles) and the East Palaearctic and Australasian regions (orange circles).

Figure 4.

(a) Leaf‐cutting ant of the genus Acromyrmex cutting a leaf. (b) Ant of the genus Rhytidoponera dispersing an Acacia seed in the arid region of Western Australia. Note the presence of the yellow lipid‐rich part, the elaiosome that is seized by the ant mandibules. (c) Ectatomma tuberculatum feeding on extrafloral nectaries, Rica. (d) Camponotus species feeding on the honeydew produced by an Hemipteran (Coccidae) in Costa. Photographs by Benoit Guénard.



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Further Reading

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Guénard, Benoit(May 2013) An Overview of the Species and Ecological Diversity of Ants. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0023598]