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Monday, September 18, 2006

California Scientists Find Natural Way To Control Spread Of Destructive Argentine Ants



In
the United States, the invasive Argentine ants (pictured) live in super
colonies and generally cooperate with each other. But, altering the
recognition cues on the exoskeletons of these ants could spark
infighting among the residents of these vast colonies and help check
their spread, according to research presented at the 232nd American
Chemical Society National Meeting in San Francisco.

by Doug Dollemore

San Francisco, CA (SPX) Sep 15, 2006


Pesticides haven't stopped them. Trapping hasn't worked, either. But
now chemists and biologists at the University of California, Irvine,
(UCI) think they may have found a natural way to finally check the
spread of environmentally destructive Argentine ants in California and
elsewhere in the United States: Spark a family feud.


The preliminary finding, by UCI organic chemist Kenneth Shea,
evolutionary biologist Neil Tsutsui and graduate student Robert Sulc,
was described today at the 232nd national meeting of the American
Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.


Slight alterations in the "recognition" chemicals on the exoskeletons
of these closely related pests, these scientists say, could transform
"kissing cousins" into mortal enemies, triggering deadly in-fighting
within their normally peaceful super colonies, which have numerous
queens and can stretch hundreds of miles.

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CONTINUED...


One colony of Argentine ants is believed to extend almost the complete
length of California, stretching from San Diego to Ukiah, 100 miles
north of San Francisco. Their sheer numbers, cooperative behavior and
lack of natural predators in the United States make these small,
slender ants - only about 1/8 of an inch long - difficult to eradicate,
Tsutsui and Shea say.


The ants use chemical cues on their exoskeletons to recognize other
members of their colony. Because Argentine ants in the California super
colony are so interrelated, they have similar "recognition" cues and
generally cooperate with each other. But in their preliminary
laboratory work, Shea and Tsutsui were able to create a slightly
altered, synthetic version of one of these "recognition" compounds,
which was composed mainly of linear hydrocarbons with one- to
three-side chains called methyl groups. When coated onto experimental
Argentine ants, the synthetic recognition compound caused untreated
nest mates to attack.


"Our preliminary results strongly suggest that by manipulating these
chemicals on the exoskeleton, one could disrupt the cooperative
behavior of these ants and, in essence, trigger civil unrest within
these huge colonies," Shea says. "Although further study is needed,
this approach, if it proves successful, could enable us to better
control this pest."


Argentine ants are one of the most widespread and ecologically damaging
invasive species, Tsutsui said. When Argentine ants are introduced to a
new habitat, they eliminate virtually all native species of ants. These
effects ripple through the ecosystem, causing harm to species such as
the imperiled Coastal Horned Lizard, which feeds exclusively on a few
species of native ants. Argentine ants also cause significant harm to
agricultural crops, such as citrus, by protecting aphids and scale
insects from potential predators and parasites.


In their native South American habitat, Argentine ants are genetically
diverse, have territories measured in yards rather than miles and are
extremely aggressive toward encroaching colonies, literally tearing one
another apart in battle, according to Tsutsui. But North American
colonies are different. Because they are believed to be descended from
a single small population of genetically similar ants, Argentine ants
in United States essentially "recognize" each other as members of the
same clan, he said.


"The final goal of this project would be to recognize the colony
markers that distinguish one colony from another," Shea said. "Once we
have an understanding of those markers, then it might be possible to
use synthetic mixtures of hydrocarbons to either confuse or confound or
otherwise disrupt social behavior."


Argentine ants were likely carried into the United States in the 1890s
aboard cargo ships that docked in Louisiana. Although the proliferation
of the ants has been slowed in the South and Southeast by the
introduction of fire ants, Argentine ants are now the most common ant
in California, Shea said.

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