I'm doing a project for school, and I'm trying to find out how many different kinds of ants there are. I checked in a few different places, but I keep getting different numbers. What's the real number?
-Ruchika, Mumbai, India
That's a great question, Ruchika, and we're still trying to figure out the answer! Because scientists discover new ant species every year, the number of species is always going up. So far scientists have given formal scientific names to about 14,000 ant species and subspecies, but we know there are many, many more ants out there that have yet to be discovered and given formal scientific names. Since the AntWeb species database is closely maintained by some of the leading ant taxonomists (scientists who name and describe species), it is one of the best places to look for how many species are currently recognized.
There are two main places you can look on AntWeb to find the latest statistics on how many species there are: on the AntWeb homepage and on the AntWeb "The World Ants" page. As of April 2010, the number of species given is 14,095.
Although there have been over 14,000 formal scientific names given to ants, no one really knows exactly how many species of ants are alive today. New species, especially in tropical rain forests around the world, are discovered every year. Even in the United States there are new species of ants that have yet to be given formal names. As you look around AntWeb there is evidence for the existence of new species waiting to be described. Often, when you look at a regional list of ant species in the Bioregions pulldown on AntWeb, there are many entries with a genus and species name, but there are also entries with a genus name, and then some short code of letters and numbers, like Solenopsis nz01, or Adelomyrmex jtl007. The codes (usually taken from the taxonomist's initials, or an abbreviation for were the specimen was collected) sometimes mean that the curators of those regional lists think those specimens belong to a species new to science.
People often think that there are only red and black ants, but as you have found, there are many more kinds than that. That's part of what makes studying ants so exciting! Not only are there many different kinds of ants, they come in many sizes, shapes and colors. We encourage you to look around AntWeb at the amazing diversity of these fascinating insects.
- Jesse Czekanski-Moir & the AntAsk Team