A new study from the University of Colorado Boulder found that certain ant species have disappeared from their original habitats due to rising temperatures.

Published in the journal Ecology, the study researched ant species that were part of an earlier study from the 1950s to determine what changes have occurred within the local ant species in the past 60 years.

Led by doctoral student Anna Paraskevopoulos from the University of Colorado Boulder, the study took place in Gregory Canyon, near Boulder, Colorado, according to CU Boulder Today. Increases in temperature over the past 60 years have forced certain ant species to leave Gregory Canyon.

2 similar studies, 60 years apart

Back in 1957 and 1958, University of Colorado Boulder entomologist Robert Gregg and his student John Browne had ventured to Gregory Canyon to take a survey on the local ant populations, per CU Boulder Today. The canyon is home to several environments, such as forests and shrub lands. The study noted how there was no habitat degradation.

Per CU Boulder Today, ants are ectothermic creatures, which rely on an environment’s temperature to maintain their body temperature and functions. According to Colorado State University, there are several species of ants commonly found in Colorado:

  • Pavement ants: Small brown ants that people normally notice under pavement and rocks, which is where the ants make their nests.
  • Field ants: A medium black ant that is normally found outside but can be seen inside houses during the spring.
  • Carpenter ants: The largest ants found in Colorado, they are normally found in forests and wooded areas where their nests are located, with a black color and wings.
  • Cornfield ants: Tiny brown-colored ants known to live outdoors but enter buildings to find sweet food.
  • Odorous house ants: Small black ants known to raise their abdomen and release an odor when disturbed.
  • Pharaoh ants: Tiny brown ants that create nests inside buildings and create multiple colonies.

Paraskevopoulos’ team went to Gregory Canyon in 2021 and 2022 and took surveys of ants from the same sites Gregg and Browne studied in their research, per CU Boulder Today. They found that ant species Gregg had noted in his study had increased in population size, but 12 other species were gone or hard to find.

They concluded that the ant species that did survive and expand were able to survive a wider range of temperature, compared to the 12 missing species that were more sensitive to temperature changes and/or faced competition from other expanding species.

Paraskevopoulos told CU Boulder Today that “(t)he resulting biodiversity change could potentially alter local ecosystems,” with her research finding that climate change forced ants that could not tolerate high temperatures to leave their original habitats in Gregory Canyon.

How important are ants to our ecosystem?

According to Harvard University, ants help aerate the soil, which allows water and oxygen to reach the roots of plants. When ants take seeds down into their nests, those seeds can grow into new plants.

There are at least 12,000 species of ants worldwide. In the overall ecosystem, ants act as predator and prey. They act as predators to plants and other insects, such as termites, but are prey to animals and carnivorous plants (like the pitcher plant).