Your questions answered: ‘Which is the most successful species of ant?’

Noah contacted us recently with an intriguing question: ‘What is the most successful species of ant?’. It really got us thinking! Insects are a very successful group of animals, and ants are very successful insects, but how could we decide which is the most successful?

There might be different ways we might measure success. It is the most numerous ant? Or the group with the most species? It might be the species that’s most widely spread across the globe? Perhaps it’s the longest-lived, or the largest?

Successful ants

Ants are a very successful group of insects. The biologist E.O. Wilson (who died recently) estimated that there may be a million ants for every human being, but the truth is that we don’t really know. Although they are small, there are so many of them that they may make up a quarter of the mass of all land animals!

Scientists think that ants probably evolved from a type of wasp 168 million years ago. They became really successful after flowering plants evolved about 100 million years ago. We know this because ants appear much more often in the fossil record, and we start to find many more species . One of the oldest fossil ants is Sphecomyrma, found trapped in 99 million year old amber from Myanmar.

Micrograph of a fossil ant trapped in amber. Species undetermined. 50 million years old.
Fossil Ant trapped in Amber. Image Credit: OUMNH

Features that have helped ants to become so successful include:

  • Their social nature – ants in a nest are good at cooperating.
  • They modify habitats – most animals can only survive in certain conditions but ant colonies can change their surroundings to suit them.
  • Ants can use a wide range of food sources. Some species even farm – growing fungi or ‘milking’ aphids for food.
  • Defence – ants are really good at defending themselves and each other. They are strong, have biting mouthparts and produce acid. The origin of the word ‘ant’ means ‘biter’.
  • Some species form supercolonies – huge nests containing several queen ants. This level of cooperation and organisation help some ant species to be mega-successful.
The ability of ants to cooperate helps make them successful.

Which ants are most successful?

So, ants are very successful as a group of insects. Here are some examples of ant species that might be the most successful:

Most numerous: Difficult to say, but perhaps the Argentine ant Linepithema humile.

Widest distribution: Several contenders for this, but perhaps the fire ant Solenopsis invicta.

Most different species: The genus Pheidole with over 1,000 described species.

Largest: The fossil giant ant Titanomyrma gigantuem was the largest ant to have lived. The queens were 6cm long with a wingspan of 15cm.That’s about the same size as a hummingbird!

Longest lived: We think oldest individual ant on record in a laboratory was a queen of the species Pogonomyrmex owyheei which lived to be 30 years old. Colonies of ants can survive for centuries in nature, continuing through many generations of ants.

The fossil giant ant Titanomyrma lubei, with a hummingbird for comparison.
Image Credit: Simon Fraser University CC BY 2.0

The fact is, however, that every species has most of the characteristics that make all ants successful, so perhaps the most common British ant, the Common Black Ant, Lasius niger, is as good a candidate for most successful as any? It’s also worth remembering that entomologists think we have only described about two thirds of all ant species – so there are many more left to discover!

We hope that answers Noah’s question. If you have a question about insects or the museum you’d like to ask us, just write it in the comments or send us a message using the Contact Us page.

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