Depending on what the word “group” implies, it is highly debatable which animal forms the largest group on Earth. Whether they are in colonies, herds, schools, or in the skies, oceans, and desert plains, there are sure to be several suitors on the list.
During one of ornithologist Noah Strycker’s unusual quests, he encountered several thousand chinstrap penguins on Elephant Island. He and his colleagues reveal that this species, gathered by the millions in certain places in Antarctica, actually forms one of the largest colonies of penguins on Earth.
“They’re very beautiful. It almost looks like smoke,” Strycker told Live Science. “And it just makes you wonder, how many are there?” There are around 1 million in the middle murmur, and can be as high as 2 million on the South Sandwich Islands off Antarctica that they have found. This led him to an even more ambitious question: “Beyond birds, what is the largest group of animals ever recorded on Earth?”
High in the sky
In Strycker’s book titled “The Feather Thing: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Humans“, he found that in the category of birds, these charismatic penguins are far behind the red-billed quelea, a small migratory sparrow-like bird native to sub-Saharan Africa. They can gather in single groups of several million and are now considered to be the most abundant wild bird in the world, according to Audobon.
However, there is another bird species that is even more populous and once abundant in American skies: the passenger pigeon.
“There are stories of people standing there and watching a single flock of passenger pigeons fly over them for hours or days at a time, which is crazy!” Strycker said, but of course that was 1866 when hunting didn’t drive the animals to extinction.
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Abundance at the bottom
Descending from the skies to the ocean, here are fish and land species vying for the most populous creature on Earth on record.
So far, the passenger pigeon’s closest competitor is the Atlantic herring, one of the most abundant fish species on the planet. Present on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, they gather in schools that exceed 4 billion. Other species don’t even come close to the count, but the numbers are still impressive enough not to mention.
There are migratory mammals like springbok and wildebeest in southern Africa that have gathered in herds, exceeding 1 million in the past. Their herd is so vast that their processional marches across the sunny savannah took weeks.
Meanwhile, their winged mammalian cousins in Texas — the Mexican free-tailed bats — live in a single cave that’s home to more than 20 million of them, according to Bat Conservation.
Finally, beneath the Earth’s surface are vast colonies of Argentine ants, which were unwittingly introduced from South America to Europe about 100 years ago. The “industrious creature” has formed the largest known continuous colony in the world: a behemoth that stretches 3,700 miles (6,000 km) underground across vast swaths of Europe.
While the question “which animal forms the largest group” seems simple, “it seems like such a quantifiable question, and yet the more you dig into it, the harder it becomes to define what you mean by ‘group,'” says Strycker. . “It’s so difficult to estimate large concentrations.”
Nevertheless, the boom in animal populations suggests the abundance of life on Earth and the human influence that serves to protect it.
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