Invasive Ant Finally Gets Its Real Name
By Robin Grant
Written for a Science Reporting Class, Carleton School of Journalism
An invasive ant ravaging Gulf Coast states for over a decade is now confirmed to be a species of a crazy ant native to South America and the Caribbean, according to a recent study.
And classifying the far-ranging pest was a nuance, too, as researchers had to compare the miniscule genitalia of many different ant types to determine this one’s scientific moniker.
“Sort of a running joke among entomologists who do taxonomy is that we spend a lot of time looking at the naughty bits of insects,” said study researcher John LaPolla, a taxonomist at Towson University to LiveScience in September. “And the reason for that is because there are often some distinct features that help separate the species.”
Popularly known as the Rasberry crazy ant, the ant is named after Tom Rasberry, the local exterminator in South Texas who discovered it.
In 2002, Rasberry noticed a growing number of ant colonies housed insects that swarmed rapidly and moved in erratic circles. In his early attempts to eradicate the pest, Rasberry said he knew the infestation would spread and reach uncontrollable numbers.
“The reproductive capability of this ant was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” Rasberry said.
In the years since its discovery, the ant has spread from South Texas to 21 counties and into parts of Mississippi and Louisiana.
The ants cause serious problems in rural communities, such as shorting out important electrical equipment, asphyxiating small livestock and causing ecological damages unprecedented in the region.
“Once the ants get into rural communities, they pretty much take out the entire food chain,” Rasberry said.
In the study released in September, LaPolla and his colleagues compared the body parts of several ants to pinpoint this ant’s exact genus. They compared specimens of the Rasberry crazy ant with another species called Nylanderia, which are found in North America, the Caribbean and tropical zones in Europe, Asia and Africa.
The classification process was difficult because two possible species, the N. fulva and N. pudens, have almost similar worker ants, according to the study.
So, by using genetic data and measurements of the ant bodies, the researchers determined the ants’ species by examining the male ants’ genitals.
Looking at the genital features and genetic data, the scientists learned that the Rasberry crazy ant belongs to the N. fulva category found in South America.
The study argues that knowing the ant’s scientific classification is important to deal with invasive species that are a consequence of human-caused global change. The study also says the findings could help uncover ways of eradicating the pest. Determining the species point of entry into the country, which is assumed to be the Port of Houston, can give custom officials something to watch for.
Back in South Texas, Rasberry still deals with the ants on a daily basis. He says the new research should help find and fund ways of controlling the ant, which is too expensive for citizens to undertake on their own.
He said he is angry the government did nothing about the infestation when he first reported it 2002.
“Government entities are inept. They wait until after the problem happens before they respond,” he said. “Now we’ll never get rid of the ants.”