Ants Revealed As Ecological Engineers As They Restore Dry Grasslands


Rachael Funnell

Social Editor and Staff Writer

clockApr 21 2020, 17:14 UTC

Harvester ant Messor barbarus © Renaud Jaunatre/IMBE/CNRS

Ants are famous for their complex architecture, as well as their agricultural and even animal husbandry habits. Now, a new study has revealed that ants play a key role in restoring damaged grasslands. The research, published in the journal Biological Conservation, looked at harvester ants in the Mediterranean to investigate the impact these minute arthropods have had on the landscape.

Many habitats rely on species to keep the lay of the land in check. Worms recycle our soils, keeping them fertile and a ripe growth medium for plants. Pollinators such as bees and butterflies dutifully ferry pockets-full of pollen from one flower to another, guaranteeing the next generation of flowering plants and certain crops. The latest eco-warrior appears to be the humble ant, which in the dry grasslands on the plain of La Crau are helping to recover the land.


A team of ecologists and agronomists led by Thierry Dutoit, a French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) researcher at the Mediterranean Institute of Biodiversity and Marine and Continental Ecology, were studying the Messor barbarus harvester ant. These small arthropods are found in Southern Europe and Northern Africa and are known for their complex foraging behaviors. Using chemical signals laid down by “media ants” to map out their routes, they’ll divvy up the labor between individuals based on the size of the payload to be dragged back to the nest (mostly seeds) and the size of the ant.

The study compared the soil and plant community between nests and ant-free patches in the grassland. The results suggest the foraging behaviors of these invertebrates actually accelerated the resilience of plant communities in degraded grasslands by aiding their recovery. They observed the ants over a period of 5 to 10 years and in that time found that harvester ants had improved the fertility of the soil and plant distribution. 

Their endless trekking had facilitated the transport, redistribution, and storage of seeds for the struggling plant species, and also significantly increased the plant biomass next to their nests. The findings indicate that despite their small size, ants are influential ecological engineers for the conservation and restoration of Mediterranean dry grasslands.


Something the size of your fingernail is restoring precious habitats. What’s your excuse?