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Chemical Warfare Among Invaders: A Detoxification Interaction Facilitates an Ant Invasion

Science  28 Feb 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6174, pp. 1014-1017
DOI: 10.1126/science.1245833

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Know Your Enemy

Fire ants accidentally introduced to North America from their native range in Argentina have been hugely invasive and difficult to eradicate and caused both environmental and economic damage. Recently, another accidentally introduced Argentine ant, the tawny crazy ant, appears to be displacing the fire ants. How? LeBrun et al. (p. 1014, published online 13 February; see the Perspective by Kaspari and Weiser) show that tawny crazy ants have a chemical and behavioral response to the toxic bite of fire ants that vastly reduces their mortality during confrontations and that allows the tawny crazy ants to outcompete their rivals.

Abstract

As tawny crazy ants (Nylanderia fulva) invade the southern United States, they often displace imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta). After exposure to S. invicta venom, N. fulva applies abdominal exocrine gland secretions to its cuticle. Bioassays reveal that these secretions detoxify S. invicta venom. Further, formic acid from N. fulva venom is the detoxifying agent. N. fulva exhibits this detoxification behavior after conflict with a variety of ant species; however, it expresses it most intensely after interactions with S. invicta. This behavior may have evolved in their shared South American native range. The capacity to detoxify a major competitor’s venom probably contributes substantially to its ability to displace S. invicta populations, making this behavior a causative agent in the ecological transformation of regional arthropod assemblages.

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