May 18, 2024

How Ants Took Over the World

They discovered that ants and plants evolved together, and when blooming plants moved out from forests to more dry regions, ants followed. The plants provided food for ants and assisted distribute their seeds, shaping the advancement and spread of ants.
Ants took control of the world by following flowering plants out of ancient forests.
In a new study in the journal Evolution Letters, scientists used a mix of fossils, DNA, and data on the environment choices of modern-day species to piece together how plants and ants have been developing together over the past 60 million years. They discovered that when blooming plants spread out from forests, the ants followed, kicking off the advancement of the thousands of ant types alive today.
” When you look around the world today, you can see ants on nearly every continent occupying all these various habitats, and even various dimensions of those environments– some ants live underground, some reside in the canopies of trees. Were attempting to understand how they were able to diversify from a single common ancestor to inhabit all these various spaces,” states Matthew Nelsen, a research study scientist at the Field Museum in Chicago and lead author of the paper.
A leaf cutter ant, one of the more than 14,000 types alive today. Credit: Photo by Matthew Nelsen
Scientists currently understood that ants and flowering plants, or angiosperms, both originated around 140 million years ago and subsequently ended up being more widespread and spread out to new habitats. Nelsen and his colleagues desired to discover evidence that the two groups evolutionary paths were linked.

To find that link, Nelsen and his co-authors (Corrie Moreau at Cornell University, Kevin Boyce at Stanford University, and Richard Ree at the Field Museum) compared the climates that 1,400 contemporary ant species populate, consisting of data on temperature level and precipitation. They paired this information with a time-scaled restoration of the ant ancestral tree, based on hereditary information and ant fossils protected in amber. Lots of ant habits, like where they construct their nests and what habitats they reside in, appear to be deeply ingrained in their types lineages, to the point that researchers are able to make quite good guesses about prehistoric ants lives based upon their modern relatives. These information, when coupled with comparable details about plants, helped bring the early ants world into focus.
Ants drinking from a plants extrafloral nectary, among lots of crucial ant-plant interactions. Credit: Photo by Matthew Nelsen
About 60 million years back, ants lived mostly in forests and built their nests underground. “Around this time, a few of the plants in these forests progressed to exhale more water vapor out through tiny holes in their leaves– they made the entire place a lot wetter, so the environment became more like a rainforest,” states Nelsen. In this wetter environment, a few of the ants started moving their nests out from underground and up into the trees. (They werent the only ones moving to the trees, either– frogs, snakes, and epiphytic plants, similar to the bromeliads and air plants we have today, likewise required to the trees around this time, assisting produce new arboreal neighborhoods.).
A few of the blooming plants living in these forests started to spread out external, inching their method into more deserts and adjusting to prosper in drier conditions. Nelsen and his coworkers work recommends that when flowering plants left the forests, some of the ants followed. The plants might have offered a reward for the ants in the form of food. “Other researchers have shown that plants in these dry habitats were evolving ways of making food for ants– including things like elaiosomes, which are like fleshy appendages on the seeds,” says Nelsen. And when ants take the seeds to get the elaiosomes, they assist disperse them: a win for the parent plants.
The researchers say that by showing how plants assisted form the evolution and spread of ants is especially essential because of the climate and biodiversity crises were facing.
” This study reveals the essential function that plants play in shaping environments,” says Nelsen. “Shifts in plant neighborhoods– such as those we are seeing as a repercussion of historical and modern environment modification– can cascade and impact the animals and other organisms relying on these plants.”.
Reference: “Macroecological diversification of ants is linked to angiosperm development” by Matthew P Nelsen, Corrie S Moreau, C Kevin Boyce and Richard H Ree, 31 March 2023, Evolution Letters.DOI: 10.1093/ evlett/qrad008.

They found that plants and ants evolved together, and when blooming plants moved out from forests to more arid areas, ants followed. The plants supplied food for ants and helped disperse their seeds, shaping the advancement and spread of ants. They found that when blooming plants spread out from forests, the ants followed, kicking off the development of the thousands of ant types alive today.
They paired this info with a time-scaled restoration of the ant household tree, based on genetic information and ant fossils preserved in amber. Lots of ant behaviors, like where they build their nests and what habitats they live in, appear to be deeply deep-rooted in their species lineages, to the point that scientists are able to make pretty excellent guesses about prehistoric ants lives based on their modern-day relatives.