They may be small, but researchers say they are having a big impact. Ants may be able to save the world from climate change, according to a new provocative study published in the journal Geology.
Though their life span is less than a year, in this short amount of time ants' effect on soil reportedly cooled Earth's climate as their numbers grew.
"Ants are changing the environment," lead author Ronald Dorn, a geologist at Arizona State University, told Live Science.
Dorn and his team found that certain ant species "weather" minerals in order to secrete calcium carbonate - more commonly known as limestone. During the process of making limestone, these insects inadvertently trap and remove a tiny bit of carbon dioxide gas from the atmosphere.
This ant limestone factory is a small-scale version of a massive planetary-cooling process that takes place in the oceans, known as carbon sequestration. Limestone deposited in the ocean holds more carbon than is present in the atmosphere today.
To better understand this climate change-fighting activity, researchers tracked the breakdown of basalt sand at six sites in the Catalina Mountains in Arizona and Palo Duro Canyon in Texas. Over the course of five years, Dorn dug up some sand and measured how much the minerals olivine and plagioclase have degraded from exposure to water, insect activity and chemicals from tree roots.
The results showed that ants break down the minerals 50 to 300 times faster compared to sand untouched by the insects. Meanwhile, the ants are building up limestone in their nests, and Dorn suspects that they are using calcium and magnesium from the minerals to make limestone.
Consequently, the ants may be trapping carbon dioxide - a major greenhouse gas contributor to climate change - in the rock.
However, the researchers cannot ascertain at this point just how much carbon these limestone engineers are removing from the atmosphere.
"Clearly, more studies on the role of ants and other animals populating soils are needed to broaden our understanding of their significance in global biotic enhancement of weathering," David Schwartzman, a geochemist at Howard University in Washington, D.C., who was not involved with the study, told Live Science.
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