Adapted from 10 Breakthroughs of 2014
What land-dwelling creatures possess the greatest total mass on Earth today? The surprising answer: ants! These ubiquitous insects comprise 15–25 percent of the total mass of living animal tissue on the continents. Ants’ annoying habit of invading our homes makes it difficult to feel gratitude for their large numbers—however, both ants’ population size and behaviors have helped compensate for the Sun’s increasing luminosity, thus assisting Earth to provide and sustain a habitat where humans can thrive.
As its nuclear furnace continues to fuse hydrogen into helium, the Sun progressively brightens. A luminosity, or heat generating, change of 1–2 percent should make Earth completely sterile (no life)—yet we’re still here, even though astronomers calculate that the Sun is about 25 percent brighter today than it was more than 3.5 billion years ago, when life originated.
Removal of atmospheric “heat-retaining” gases enabled Earth to maintain a livable temperature all these years. Certain processes and organisms are wonderfully efficient at this removal task. So, as the Sun brightened, various life-forms helped to compensate for its heating effect by removing greater and greater quantities of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
Weathering of silicates (silicon compounds) is the effective way living creatures remove greenhouse gases. In this process, atmospheric carbon dioxide reacts with rainwater to make carbonic acid that, in turn, reacts with continental silicates to yield sand and carbonates. Depending on the life-forms involved, more or fewer continental silicates are exposed to rainwater and carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere. Recently, a geologist discovered that ants may very well be the major contributors to atmospheric carbon reduction.
During the Paleogene era (66–23 million years ago), many new ant species emerged, greatly expanding their total biomass. Field studies establish that weathering of calcium and magnesium silicates is enhanced by a factor of 50–300 times in the vicinity of ant colonies.1 Thus ants indirectly played a significant role in making it possible for life to persist long enough to allow humans to arrive at the best time, and perhaps the only time, to launch and sustain advanced civilization.
As I give thanks for God’s provision, I will remember to thank him for the ants that offer just one more reminder of his exquisite design of Earth for humanity’s benefit.
- Ronald I. Dorn, “Ants as a Powerful Biotic Agent of Olivine and Plagioclase Dissolution,” Geology 42 (September 2014): 771–74.