Fire ants are already well-known in this country. They have a somewhat-restrictive preferred diet and habitat, but considerable fertility and reproductive flexibility. Males exist in their colonies only for the purpose of reproduction, and live for only about 4 days; several queens may live in the same nest. They are so-named for the burning sensation experienced by those humans whom are stung–that’s right, stung–by them. Fire ants are dominant and well-known throughout the American South.
Argentine ants are the species that is truly interesting. They originate from the river lowlands of northern Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Brazil. Some time after 1890 they began to spread around the Earth by hitching rides on Argentine ships hauling coffee and sugar. They favor warm and humid maritime environments; they have become well-established in California and the American Southeast. They are much less-choosy than fire ants about their source of food. They have been in the news for purposively wiping out competitor ant species–and incidentally endangering any species dependent upon those–at least since 1997.
They also unremittingly attack all other ant species, and even Argentine ants from other colonies. In fact, within the warm, humid areas of North America that make good habitat for them, they may wipe out all native ant species–with the exception of fire ants, which are also prolific and similarly-aggressive.
In contrast with most native species, not only are fire ants capable defending their territory, but throughout their vast shared territory–not just in California and the American Southeast but throughout similar climactic regions around the Earth–fire ants and Argentine ants are involved in what appears to be the first world war by a non-human species. The LA Times had a good summary of the mounting fire ant-Argentine ant war, at least as it affects California, with lots of references. It’s worth noting that the article says that “Though the most the Southeast can hope for is controlling the ants, in California the goal is still eradication.” This article dates back to 2001; both ant species are most definitely still in California.
Actually, California is center-stage in the Ant World War. Even Mark Moffett, a well-known field researcher of ant behavior, thinks these species evenly-matched. But while this prognosis remains undefined, that doesn’t mean it’s indeterminate; it is likely that, at least in 1 theater or another if not throughout these contested regions, 1 ant species will gain supremacy.
The Liberal Ironists’s next entry will discuss the extraordinary qualities which explain the Argentine ant’s success, and the crucial point missed in any humanity-as-anthill metaphor.