Ants have colonized almost every landmass on Earth. The only places lacking indigenous ants are Antarctica and a few remote or inhospitable islands. Ants thrive in most ecosystems and may form 15–25% of the terrestrial animal biomass. Their success in so many environments has been attributed to their social organisation and their ability to modify habitats, tap resources, and defend themselves. Their long co-evolution with other species has led to mimetic, commensal, parasitic, and mutualistic relationships.
Ants are found on all continents except Antarctica, and only a few large islands such as Greenland, Iceland, parts of Polynesia and the Hawaiian Islands lack native ant species. Ants occupy a wide range of ecological niches, and are able to exploit a wide range of food resources either as direct or indirect herbivores, predators, and scavengers. Most species are omnivorous generalists, but a few are specialist feeders. Their ecological dominance may be measured by their biomass and estimates in different environments suggest that they contribute 15–20% (on average and nearly 25% in the tropics) of the total terrestrial animal biomass, which exceeds that of the vertebrates.
Termites, although sometimes called ‘white ants’, are not ants. They belong to the order Isoptera. Termites are more closely related to cockroaches and mantids. Termites are eusocial, but differ greatly in the genetics of reproduction. The similarity of their social structure to that of ants is attributed to convergent evolution. Velvet ants look like large ants, but are wingless female wasps.
Ants communicate with each other using pheromones, sounds, and touch. The use of pheromones as chemical signals is more developed in ants, such as the red harvester ant, than in other hymenopteran groups. Ants use pheromones for more than just making trails. A crushed ant emits an alarm pheromone that sends nearby ants into an attack frenzy and attracts more ants from farther away. Several ant species even use “propaganda pheromones” to confuse enemy ants and make them fight among themselves.
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