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Nylanderia pubens, the tawny crazy ant (worker variety). Photo: <a href="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d4/Nylanderia_pubens_worker.png">Daniel Mietchen</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Nylanderia pubens, the tawny crazy ant (worker variety). Photo: Daniel Mietchen, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

The tawny crazy ant is coming to America

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What can take on the big agressive poisonous fire ants that invaded the U.S. decades ago? The tawny crazy ant, also an import from South America. This new "superorganism" is immune to fire ant poison, and they are displacing the previous invaders.

Martha Foley and Curt Stager discuss a new addition to the invasive species list.

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Martha Foley: We’ve talked about fire ants, those terrible stinger ants that have invaded the southern U.S. and are on the move. Now you say they’re being driven out by an ant which has a really, very fun name; the tawny crazy ants are coming?

Curt Stager: How can you resist a story about that?

MF: Seriously, the tawny crazy ants. So they’re also moving in?

CS: Yeah! They’re both from South America. The fire ants came in to the Gulf Coast states several decades ago. They’re a big problem; if you get stung it really hurts. They’ve got big jaws and they can bite. They’re big ants. They have a stinger, like a bee would have, and this poison that comes out.

MF: So they bite and sting?

CS: Bite and sting and it hurts like crazy. And they damage, you could say, the whole ecosyste, because they also kill other insects and arthropods. They go around and dab the poison on a competing kind of ant that would be a native and the poison kills them .

MF: So they have been invading for a long time.

CS: Yeah, so at this stage of history we’re spreading species around the whole world; it’s kind of like this endless pageant of new species showing up and interacting with each other. So now, this new invasive ant from South America, called the tawny crazy ant—

MF: Why do they call it the tawny crazy ant?

CS: Well, they actually have several names. The tawny crazy part comes from the tawny color and they walk with this sort of erratic twitchy movement. There was another name, the raspberry crazy ant, and I thought, “Oh, because it is red.” No!--because this exterminator in Texas called Tom Raspberry was the first one to report them.

The deal with them is that they don’t have a stinger. They’re smaller, so how could the possibly out-compete these fire ants? And it’s because when the fire ant dabs the poison on them, which should kill them, they have their own chemical they produce that neutralizes the poison.

MF: So they’ve got the antidote right with them.

CS: They’ve got the antidote right there. It comes out of the abdomen and they wipe it all over themselves and they clean themselves off and it’s like “poof,” nothing happened.

MF: So are they a threat to the fire ant? Is this something you could see as our antidote to the fire ant?

CS: Yeah, they’re driving the fire ants away. They even take over their colonies and things like that. It’s not like they’re saviors to the rescue. They eat other insects and damage the arthropod communities and the soil and they can bite and things like that, too. But it is really interesting to watch this kind of thing happen. Not only watch their behaviors as individuals, but the whole idea of ants in general being a colony, which blurs the distinction between what is an individual and what is a "super-organism," which is the technical term for this.

MF: So the colony acts in the world as one thing. Its impact is bigger than any individual ant's impact would be. And that is what we react to?

CS: Yeah, that was one of the advantages that the fire ants had, in addition to that poison they have and their aggressiveness was they’re dispersed. So you could say that a person or some other normal critter is made of millions of cells, and there are parts of your body that reproduce, parts that get food, and do other things. In the case of the ant colony, the colony is like the body and the individual ants are like the cells that do the jobs for that.

So when you have a fire ant colony, the queen is safely over somewhere, making eggs and making more fire ants, but over here on the frontier, the really aggressive ones can be doing chemical warfare and all kinds of dangerous damage and even be wiped out themselves sometimes and it doesn’t affect the whole super-organism.

That really helped them spread, until something with an antidote to the poison showed up, with its own super-organism, with its own adaptations.

MF: Fascinating. And the invasive species just keep on a-coming. Thanks very much Dr. Curt Stager of Paul Smith’s College. I’m Martha Foley at St. Lawrence University.

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