From a modest beginning in the Cretaceous, ants have come to occupy keystone positions in most terrestrial environments, serving as major conduits of energy and organic material. They are, for example, important turners of the soil, matching or exceeding the activity of earthworms in this role. They are among the leading predators of invertebrates in most ecosystems, and in the Neotropics leaf-cutter ants are the principal herbivores as well.
Interactions with ants have shaped the evolution of a variety of other organisms to an astonishing degree. Ants participate in symbioses, both facultative and obligate, with more than 465 plant species in over 52 families (Jolivet 1996), with thousands of arthropod species (Kistner 1982; Holldobler & Wilson 1990), and with as-yet unknown numbers of fungi and microorganisms (Schultz & McGlynn 2000; Mueller et al. 2001).
Ants display remarkable adaptive strategies and specializations - agriculture of fungi, seed harvesting, herding and milking of other invertebrates, communal nest weaving, cooperative hunting in packs, social parasitism, slave-making - which have fueled scientific and public curiosities alike.
Despite the crucial role of ants in global ecosystems, our understanding of their taxonomy, diversity patterns, evolution and ecology is far from complete, thus undermining their potential utility in land management and conservation. It is estimated that only half of the world s ant species - currently numbering about 11,700 - have been described. A more complete inventory of the world s ant fauna is essential. AntWeb's mission is to develop tools to (1) accelerate the discovery and documentation of ant diversity, and (2) ensure ant information is widely accessible across a broad community.