'Crazy' Ants Kill Other Species and Electronics, And They're Spreading

Monday, 10 Jun 2013 12:45 PM

By Ken Mandel

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"Crazy" ants are terrorizing the U.S. from Texas to Florida as they eat their way across the country, affecting everything from livestock to electrical equipment.

Growing quickly, these insidious creatures are wiping out a previous mortal enemy, the red ants.

This strand of insect is called "crazy" because of the erratic trail they have left as they gobble their way across the country.

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With the scientific name Nylanderia fulva, they are more commonly known as the "tawny crazy ant," formerly known as the raspberry crazy ant.

But the ant by any name has likely been unwittingly brought by humans from Argentina and Brazil. Less than an eighth of an inch long, millions of the creatures can live beneath a rock, or inside a computer.

The ants were first spotted near Houston in 2002 and have traveled to 21 counties in Texas, 20 counties in Florida, and a few places in Mississippi and Louisiana, all thanks to humans. Crazy ants don't travel great distances on their own, meaning they need assistance.

Their bite doesn't sting as badly as a red ant, but they can scare away wildlife and infest homes, recreational vehicles, transformers and any small electronic device that may have been left out.

University of Texas researcher Ed LeBrun, who co-authored a study on crazy ants published in the journal Biological Invasions, told multiple media outlets that his studies have discovered that the omnivorous insects destroy other species and monopolize food resources so well that they threaten the entire ecosystem.

Also, chemicals that eliminated its relatives are proving ineffective against the crazies.

No one is sure why, but red ants, crazy ants and a few other species are drawn to electrical wiring and components. One ant nestles into a transformer and is electrocuted by a wire, causing it to "wave its abdomen in the air" (called gaster flagging), which attracts more to the location.

As they touch their dead friend, they also become electrocuted, and lure even more creatures to that spot. Eventually, the dead ants prevent an electric switch from closing, or fry to insulation to the point where the system short-circuits.

"Perhaps the biggest deal is the displacement of the fire ant," LeBrun told ABC News in releasing his study. "The whole ecosystem has changed around fire ants. Things that can't tolerate fire ants are gone. Many that can have flourished. New things have come in. Now we're going to go through and whack the fire ants and put something in its place that has a very different biology. There are going to be a lot of changes that come from that."

The researchers determined that crazy ant colonies reached densities 100 times greater than all the other ants in their area combined, so it doesn't take many to have a destructive impact.

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