Ant rulers? Supercolony in Ethiopia’s forests set to invade the world

Lepisiota ants will kill a hive.

(D. Magdalena Sorger)

The forests of Ethiopia are filled with a supercharged ant that is ready to invade the world, new research suggests.

The notorious ant species, Lepisiota canescens, is the demonstration of the behavior that is required for supercolony formation and for the global invasion (insect world domination, anyone?), the researchers say that.

“The species that we in Ethiopia have great potential to be a globally invasive species,” study author D. Magdalena Sorger, a postdoctoral researcher at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, said in a statement. “Invasive species often travel with people, so that tourism and the global trade in this region of Ethiopia continue to increase, so will the chance that the ants can drive, possibly in plant material or even in the luggage of tourists.

“All it takes is a pregnant queen,” she added. “That is how the fire ants started.” [Gallery of Zombie Ants]

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Usually ants form colonies made a nest ruled by a queen. But about 20 different ant species — think of them as the Romans or the Incas, of the insect world — have their sights set on building an empire. These ants form so-called supercolonies consisting of many nests with many queens. Supercolonies can contain billions of individuals who are swarming over the landscape and wipe out their ant neighbors. The Argentine ant, for example, has a supercolony that stretches from the most of California, and is now expanding into Mexico, researchers previously told the Science, while the largest supercolony on the planet covers a total of some 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometers) across the Mediterranean sea, according to a 2009 article in the journal Insectes Sociaux.

Sorger’s team was surveying ant species in Ethiopia, when they found that L. canescens was showing some of the characteristics of supercolony formation — namely, an opportunity to expand without any restrictions. A genetic analysis showed that the different colonies included genetically diverse members and that the species is native to the region.

In Ethiopia, many of the churches are surrounded by woods, in an otherwise inhospitable landscape. The ants seemed to have a preference for these forests, the researchers said. In addition, L. canescens seemed to have an uncanny ability to make the cross of its preferred forest habitat in the vicinity of cultivated fields, roads and buildings, the researchers reported in the current issue of the journal Insectes Sociaux.

The largest colony was still relatively modest, in absolute terms, over an expanse of approximately 24 miles in length, but this population is actually the largest supercolony documented in an ant species living in its original habitat, the researchers noted. And even stranger, the fast-growing population and aggressive expansionist behaviour are more typical of invasive species, the researchers wrote in the journal article.

The findings suggest the possibility that these ants could be general hitchhikers that colonize other regions, the researchers wrote.

“It is good to have a record of what this species does in its original habitat,” Sorger said. “Rarely do we have to know something about the biology of a species before it becomes invasive.”

Original article on Live Science.


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