Crazy Ants Use Chemical Warfare – Fire Ants use Amphibious Vehicles

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Regular visitors to will know that I do not hesitate in sharing news about difficult subjects especially when it comes to unusual animal behaviour. I recently came across some information about a deadly fight between two populations which, against all international conventions, were applying chemical warfare as a means of ethnic cleansing with devastating consequences. In addition I describe below how insect populations have developed ship building techniques to enable them to conduct sea-borne warfare and attack countries where they were previously unknown.

The story starts with the Fire Ant, a poisonous stinging creature that evolved in the rainforests of Brazil. In the wild these ants have been known to swarm over insects, worms and rodents and can strip small animal carcasses to the bone in a few hours.

These fire ants have spread much further than their original rainforests due to an incredible ability to join their bodies and form rafts which enable ant foot-soldiers to literally ‘walk on water’. This rafting phenomenon was investigated by engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. They dropped spoonfuls of ants into water to investigate the structures they formed and test the strength of the bonds between individual ants.

Click here for a link showing a speeded up time lapse video of about 3000 fire ants forming a raft on the surface of water. The researchers found it was possible to create even larger ant rafts. In this video link approximately 8000 ants were involved.

The researchers investigated the raft structures by freezing them using liquid nitrogen. They also designed ingenious tests to determine the physical strength of individual ‘ant bonding’. In one experiment they glued a live ant on the underside of a glass slide and lassoed the waist of a second and with a small loop of elastic. The glued ant gripped the lassoed ant with its claws and the researchers tested the strength of the glued ant’s grip by pulling on the elastic waistband (please note does not condone the use of live animals in laboratory experiments – whenever you work with ants please do so humanely and avoid causing them distress or harm).

The structures formed by the ant rafts where akin to the weaving patterns found in some waterproof fabrics. This is what helped them to stay afloat. The experimenters found the grip of the individual ants was so strong that it would be equivalent to a human being dangling six full-grown elephants from the top of a building (children please do not try this at home or on holiday!).

Interestingly it was not only the foot soldier ants who survived a flooding event by walking all over their interwoven colleagues. The ants forming the structure were also able to survive because the ‘fabric’ captured large air bubbles allowing them to breath and helping to keep the raft afloat.

This ability to create biological floating structures has been key to the survival and dissemination of the fire ants. The rain forests are often prone to flooding and these ‘vessels’ not only allowed the ants to survive the flooding but also enabled them to spread across vast areas of South America. Such imported red fire ants have also been a major plague, terrorising both populations and livestock in the South East USA. However it appears that these recent illegal US immigrants may now have met their match. Meet the Tawny Crazy Ant:

A couple of crazy ants enjoying some local Texan steak (courtesy of Lawrence Gilbert, University of Texas)
A couple of crazy ants enjoying some local Texan steak (courtesy of Lawrence Gilbert, University of Texas)

These crazy ants also evolved in South America and have also recently started to invade the USA. They were christened ‘crazy’ due to their erratic movements. Both fire ants and crazy ants build nests with lots of queens. This means they can soon achieve huge population densities wherever they appear.

The fire ant generally prefers to stay outdoors whereas the crazy ant is not fussy about where it resides. You can therefore find the crazy critters under logs, inside building walls and even in electrical and electronic circuit boxes where they have a passion for devouring insulating materials. Crazy ants have even been known to take over the nests of fire ants despite the latter’s incredibly poisonous venom.

Edward LeBrun, an ecologist at the University of Texas, Austin wondered how it was possible for the crazy ants to overcome the fire ant. Fire ants emit a toxin which is two to three times more toxic than the insecticide DDT. With the help of a dead cricket as meal-time bait he investigated what happened in a boundary area between fire ant and crazy ant colonies. As you would predict once troops from the two colonies met the fire ants swiped their crazy opponents using their venom-filled stingers. After this interaction the crazy ants simply walked away, raised the tip of their abdomen to their head and squirted a liquid onto their mouth parts. Then, somewhat akin to a rabbit washing its face with its paws, the crazy ants wiped their legs across their mouth and used them to disseminate the liquid along the rest of their body.

LeBrun carried out tests on the compounds secreted by two glands at the tip of the crazy ant’s abdomen to investigate if they had anti-venom properties. He applied the compounds to another similar sized ant that had been the victim of a fire ant’s sting. It would appear that they key anti-venom agent was formic acid which was contained in the crazy ant’s venom. It normally sprays out this venom during its own attacks on other creatures. Further tests also confirmed that synthetically made formic acid also has the same protective effect.

LeBrun believes that the formic acid destroys (denatures) proteins which are also key constituents of the fire ant’s venom. These proteins help other potent toxins in the fire ant’s venom to get into the cells of their victims. It would appear that the formic acid, by destroying the proteins in the venom, stops the powerful fire ant toxins reaching their targets within a victim’s cells.

This toxin/antitoxin relationship between the two species probably arose as they evolved together in South America where both species co-exist. It seems set to end the dominance enjoyed by the fire ants in the Southern USA during the last 60 years. However for some local residents the replacement of the nasty stinging fire ant with the electrical insulation devouring crazy ant may not be the most optimum solution!

If you are interested in some other articles on this subject you can find English ones here and here. A German article can also be found here.

Stop scratching!

Chris Duggleby 

If you found this review interesting you might like to take a look at the following articles. Simply click on the titles below:

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7th March 2014: Invasive Alien Species (IAS) Discovered in France – Potential for European Ecosystem Disaster

4th March 2014: 30,000 Year old giant virus found in the Siberian Permafrost and ‘resurrected’ – it is still infectious!

24th February 2014: NAZI Research into the use of Mosquitoes as Biological Weapons to Infect Allied Troops with Malaria.

2nd January 2013: Horror Story: Scientists demonstrate that drivers aim to kill innocent creatures trying to cross the road! (Tortoise-o-cide)

29th December 2012: Spreading diarrhea and vomit through the washing machine – The Norovirus propagator in our kitchen 

28th December 2012: If you want to suck on my worm you had better whistle my song! 

6th April 2013: Family welcomed on board luxury cruise liner – by thousands of bed bugs!

9th March 2013: Insects getting hooked on psychoactive drugs – How plants take advantage of bees by giving them a caffeine buzz

11th August 2012: Do you have killer rats/mice in your cellar? Over 2000 people attacked in Germany so far this year (Hantavirus Infections at record levels) 

You can find further interesting articles in the contents list of my Alpine Press press page by clicking the link here.

If you would like to see more coverage of a certain issue or have comments on any of the articles here please leave a message via the comments box below.

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Transformation, Risk & Lifestyle

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