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Invading Ant Armies Help Harmful Plants Spread

Dec 27, 2014 08:03 PM EST
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Invasive species are a menace enough when they wade into a new and vulnerable ecosystem alone, but what happens when they help one another set camp and wage war on ecological stability? A new study has found that an invasive fire ant is doing just that in North America, marching through foreign soils and helping invasive plants spread.

The European fire ant is not exactly a new invader of North American shores. Hardy, aggressive, and prolific reproducers, these ants have found themselves some comfortable footholds in the northwestern globe, bullying out local ant populations.

With these "forward camps" long established, these ants are now helping other species invade and spread, posing a far greater threat to local ecosystems than once thought.

"Ecologists think invasive species might help each other to spread, but there are few good examples. They talk about 'invasional meltdown,' because ecosystems could be very, very rapidly taken over by invasive species if invaders help each other out," evolutionary biologist Megan Frederickson explained in a recent statement. "Our results suggest that invasional meltdown could be happening right under our noses, here in Ontario."

Frederickson recently helped author a study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, which details how she and her colleagues assessed how the European fire ant is interacting with invaded environs.

According to the study, the research team crafted several test pools which contained three local plants and one invasive species (greater celandine). They then exposed these test pools to either European fire ants or local ant populations.

"The pools with the invasive ant were overrun by the invasive plant, but pools with the native ant had lots of native plants," said co-author and ecologist Kirsten Prior.

The researchers suspect this has a lot to do with the simple fact that the invasive ants spread and reproduce quicker than their native competitors, meaning they spread seeds faster, This likewise give invasive plants a means to more quickly bully out local vegetation.

"Our finding that multiple invasive species can accelerate invasion and cause ecosystems to become dominated by invasive species is a troubling one," Prior added, saying that more research into these sort of dangerous relationships is important.

"It sets us on the right path to develop solutions to reduce the spread and impact of these harmful species," she explained.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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