Hello folks who wonder if sloths are the original "tree huggers",

Have you ever played chess with a grade-schooler? Everything is fine till the kid is winning the game. But if you end up with the scenario when the king belonging to the kid cannot escape from the check and you inform them the game is over, then all hell breaks loose.


The kid will start to wail and throw a fit. "The rules of this game are just not fair" screams the kid. So, you decide to crush the ego of this arrogant kid and ask it to design the rules of the game so that it will not ever complain if it loses. Someone has to wipe that smirk of their face by defeating them on their own turf.

10 minutes later, this is what the kid presents you with. What the F.


Nature has a way of throwing a wrench to the best of plans humans have for world domination. Every time humans think they have out maneuvered nature; it reveals a royal flush. Case in point is the "Argentine Ant".

But before we go over to the protagonist of this post, let's take a moment to appreciate some native California Ants: Winter Ants or False Honeypot ants. These ants, as their name suggests, are commonly spotted during colder temperatures. One of the prominent identifying features of these ants is the swollen abdomen that they use to accommodate liquid food.
 

One of the common behaviors you will see ants indulge in when passing an ant is to sniff each other using their antennae. This indicates whether the opposite ant is friend or foe.


If the scent does not match its own, it will fight the other ant to death. This is a great way for ant colonies to keep each other's numbers in check. Unfortunately, one of the ants that was accidentally introduced around the world, the Argentine Ant came from a common ancestor hence all the descendants have a similar scent and so two ants from different locations outside their native range when put in front of each other will start indulging in small talk about the weather or asking it to be added to the others' Linkedin network.

This results in massive supercolonies that stretch entire countries that let other Argentine ants live in peace but decimate the other native ant numbers. Let's take a closer look at what these ants look like first before delving deeper.


Cute! Yes, I agree. But these ants are no slouch. Their strength is in numbers with each colony easily reaching millions of inhabitants they can overwhelm anything that crosses its dinner plate. An example I got to witness recently when a bunch of Argentine Ant workers attacked a Western subterranean termite worker. Here is the termite worker acting like a puppy who wants some belly rubs.


The first move these ants will indulge in is to spray a compound on to the termite that is meant to cause high levels of irritation for the termite worker. It also acts as a "I need more hands legs right now" signal for other ant workers. This will cause other ants to swarm in and start attacking the unfortunate victim.

Here you can see the Argentine worker ant pointing its abdomen in the direction of the termite to start spraying.


And then the carnage begins. Termite workers and soldiers are blind so they have no way of defending in any particular direction unless they were attacked in that direction. But these ants don't go heads first since there is a risk of injury or death, so just like a pride of lions attacking a wildebeest or a prey that is bigger than an individual, they try to attack it from its weakest side: its back. Here is a termite soldier unable to use its sharp mandibles to slice open the attacking ant.


The ants will then disarm the victim by cutting their legs and antennae so they end up becoming a vegetable. Death by ants is by a thousand cuts. Each worker attacks one part of the victim then runs away letting the other worker play its turn.


At this point you might be thinking to yourself if these ants are such a problem on US soil why doesn't the CIA and Navy seal team up to take out their queen. That ought to cause their house of cards to topple. And on paper that seems to be a great plan as outlined below.


Unfortunately, an Argentine Ant colony has multiple queens so much so that the colony can comprise up to 10% of queens of the total population. So even if one is killed, the other queens will take over the responsibilities of the missing one. And that is why eradicating these ants is such a hard problem. Spotted below is one of the queens among the workers.


1 comment:

  1. I did not like this episode because you made me feel bad for a termite.

    ReplyDelete

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