Poised to Invade the Planet is African Ant ‘Supercolony’

Capable of spreading around the world, disrupting ecosystems and becoming a pest for humans, a species of ant in the forests of Ethiopia looks poised to become a globally invasive species.

Signs that “supercolonies,” which are colonies comprised of more than one nest, are being exhibited by the species Lepisiota canescens. And a key step to becoming an invasive species is to spread out over a large territory and these supercolonies allow a single species of ant to do that.

A study on the ants was published this week in the journal Insectes Sociaux by a group of researchers from various institutions in American and Ethiopia. They observed that Australia’s Darwin Port was shut down after the ants, one similar species of ant in the same genus (Lepisiota), were discovered among cargo while another have invaded South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

“The species we found in Ethiopia may have a high potential of becoming a globally invasive species. Invasive species often travel with humans, so as tourism and global commerce to this region of Ethiopia continues to increase, so will the likelihood that the ants could hitch a ride, possibly in plant material or even in the luggage of tourists. All it takes is one pregnant queen. That’s how fire ants started!,” said lead author D. Magdalena Sorger, a post-doctoral researcher with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, in a press release.

Forests around Orthodox Christian churches in Ethiopia, which are some of the last natural forests in the country, is the place where the ant colonies are. Churches of Ethiopian Christians have long been surrounded with woodland. Some of these forests are unusually rich areas of biodiversity in areas otherwise barren or deforested for agriculture and are more than a thousand years old.

The largest supercolonies earlier found spanned 24 miles and these ants have built the largest supercolonies ever observed among an ant species in its native habitat, the researchers say. These ants have the characteristics of an invasive species is suggested by the supercolonies and the ants’ diet and nesting habits.

Only about 20 of the 12,000 known species of ants have ever shown supercolony behavior and ant supercolonies are therefore rare. Other species of ants tend to  be less tolerant of ants from other nests and more territorial.

The most famous example of the supercolony builder is perhaps the Argentine ant. Including parts of Spain, France, Italy, and Portugal, Argentine ants have spread across a roughly 2,500 miles of Western Europe. Argentine ant supercolony spanning more than 500 miles is present in the U.S. in California.

The invasions have impacts that can often be seen without a magnifying glass and ant wars may seem to be of little consequence to some, once in a region, the invasive ants drive out native ant populations.

predators that fed on those native ants, such as the coastal horned lizard, have declined in California due to the Argentine ants’ assault on native California ant species.

These ants in California have been reported to by crawling out of plumbing, even sneaking into handbags and infesting homes.

(Adapted from Bloomberg)

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