How Many Ants Become World Travelers?

Scientific American

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On a visit to the Tampa area way back when, I enjoyed a stinging reminder that not all little red ants are benign. Introduced fire ants in the U.S. South are just one example of how ants from one region can set up colonies in another. South American so-called "crazy" ants now damage electrical equipment in the U.S. And super-colonies of Argentine ants are all over Europe.

To gauge such expansions, scientists, including Scientific American contributor Rob Dunn, tried to track introduced ant species in the Netherlands, New Zealand and the U.S.

They found that some 252 ant species have infiltrated the three places, mostly accidentally, for example, in shipping containers full of fruit or wood. The researchers think their official count is low—they estimate the true number at nearly a thousand species. And most can make a permanent home on new shores, thanks to coming from nearby, climatically similar regions.

The research appeared in the journal Biology Letters.

Expanding their empires may be good news for ants. But maybe not for humans, as I learned all too painfully.

—David Biello

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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