Image: John Tann/Flickr
Down in the southeast United States, invasive fire ants are being displaced by tawny crazy ants, which have the ability to detoxify themselves from the fire ants' venom. Researchers from the University of Texas just published a paper (and really illustrative video) that describes this first ever detoxification observed in insects.
As crazy ants have been spreading across the southern United States since the early 2000s, they've been fighting and competing with the larger, venomous fire ants for nesting space and resources and the crazy ants been winning.
When a crazy ant is sprayed with venom from the abdomen of a fire ant, the crazy ant secretes formic acid from its own abdomen, takes the secretion in its mouth, and smears it over its body. According to Furturity, exposed crazy ants that were allowed to detoxify themselves had a 98 percent survival rate in lab experiments. When LeBrun and his team sealed up the crazy ants' abdominal glands with nail polish, the number of survivors dropped to below half. On the battlefield, this makes the crazy ants impervious to the weapons of the fire ant.
"As this plays out, unless something new and different happens, crazy ants are going to displace fire ants from much of the southeastern U.S. and become the new ecologically dominant invasive ant species," said Edward LeBrun, a researcher at the Fire Ant Research and Management Project at the University of Texas at Austin, in a statement.
From one perspective this sounds pretty good—one hand of invasive species washing the other. And tawny crazy ants don't sting. However, LeBrun warned the Los Angeles Times that the crazy ant can cause a lot of ecological harm and environmental harm. You might remember them as the ants that have been shorting out electronics near Houston and swarming into Atlanta.
Don't count out the fire ant yet though. Sure they've fallen behind their former neighbors from South America in what is described as an evolutionary arms race, but fire ants can make rafts of their own bodies to keep from drowning. They're resourceful and I'm sure they'll come up with something.