“It’s unimaginable,” said Patrick Schultheiss, a lead author on the study who is now a researcher at the University of Wurzburg in Germany, in a Zoom interview. “We simply cannot imagine 20 quadrillion ants in one pile, for example. It just doesn’t work.” Counting all those insects — or at least enough of them to come up with a sound estimate — involved combining data from “thousands of authors in many different countries” over the span of a century, Schultheiss added. To tally insects as abundant as ants, there are two ways to do it: Get down on the ground to sample leaf litter — or set tiny pitfall traps (often just a plastic cup) and wait for the ants to slip in. Researchers have gotten their boots dirty with surveys in nearly every corner of the world, though some spots in Africa and Asia lack data. “It’s a truly global effort that goes into these numbers,” Schultheiss said.
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