Not all ants are alike. From carpenter ants to fire ants and even common house ants, the tiny titans can be seen in virtually any environment worldwide. But the habitats they live in today are not where the ones they started out in, a recent study has revealed. 

To better understand species distribution – specifically ants – over time, researchers compared modern ants to a database of fossil ants and determined that the ants that called Europe their home 45 to 10 million years ago were actually more similar to modern-day ants now living in South East Asia than they are to their European cousins.  

That's quite a journey – especially for ants. So how did they wind up in such a different environment? During most of the Cenozoic era, around 60 to 5 million years ago, the Earth was much warmer and tropical forests covered most of the globe, including Europe. Ants thrived in these favorable climates but when Europe's climate got cooler, the tiny insects had to move or face extinction. Today, these ant descendants that were once globally widespread are now restricted to Sri Lanka, according to the University of Hong Kong news release about the study.

Understanding where ants lived, compared to where their modern relatives now call home, allows researchers to trace evolutionary patterns that may be applicable to other species – for instance, species who feed off ants.

"Many biologists tend to perceive biodiversity as a fixed image while in fact it is a very long movie and we don't understand the full story yet. Getting more snapshots of this movie will help us to reconstruct the teaser trailer of life," Benoit Guénard, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong, said in the release. 

Understanding biodiversity is valuable to sustaining global ecosystems because every living and extinct species is interconnected and those that are alive today have been diversifying for millions of years. 

"If we can get a better understanding of the climate in the past, of the consequences of climate change and of how it shaped communities, then we might be able to interpret the future of biodiversity under the current climate change scenario," Guénard explained in a statement. 

The study's findings were recently published in the Journal of Biogeography.

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