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Photo: Fire ant.
Fire ants have been found to be the most ecologically dominant species in their environment, according to a new ARS study. Photo courtesy of Pest and Diseases Image Library,

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Fire Ant Outcompetes Other Species—Even in its Native Habitat

By Alfredo Flores
July 2, 2009

Even in its native Argentina, the fire ant wins in head-to-head competition with other ant species more than three-quarters of the time, according to Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists.

ARS scientists at the South American Biological Control Laboratory (SABCL) in Hurlingham, Argentina, have been studying how different ant species fare against the fire ant as part of an effort to learn more about the behavior of this pest—an invasive species in its non-native United States.

Fire ants often attack in swarms--not only causing painful stings to humans, but can even kill small animals. Little has been known, however, about the fire ant's competitive nature or how it interacts with other ants.

SABCL biologist Luis Calcaterra, working closely with lab director Juan Briano, has been studying interactions between the red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, and other aboveground foraging ants in two habitats in northeastern Argentina—using a combination of pitfall traps and baits to study day-to-day activity in ant communities.

The pitfall trap is a 50 milliliter plastic tube buried in the ground and half-filled with soapy water. The bait is one gram of canned tuna placed on a plastic card measuring five centimeters in diameter. The trap and bait gave the scientists a way to determine ant populations at the sites, and showed the dominance of each species.

Some 28 ant species coexisted with S. invicta in an open area of forest growing along a watercourse, whereas only 10 species coexisted with S. invicta in the dry forest grassland. The researchers found that the fire ants had the highest numbers in the open forest area along the watercourse.

Prior to these studies, it was thought that the fire ant—now established throughout the Americas—was not dominant in its native land. But the studies showed that the fire ants were the most ecologically dominant, winning 78 percent of the interactions with other ants, mostly against its most frequent competitor, the South American big-headed ant, Pheidole obscurithorax, an ant of northern Argentina and Paraguay also introduced in the United States. And in battles with the invasive Argentine ant, Linepithema humile, the fire ants were even more dominant, winning out 80 percent of the time.

This study was published in Oecologia, a journal that deals with plant and animal ecology.

Read more about the research in the July 2009 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the principal intramural scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.