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article imageThe rise of the supercolonies- Ants invade Europe

By Paul Wallis     Dec 3, 2008 in Environment
For ants, supercolonies are a huge evolutionary step. These are virtually immortal colonies, ant “civilizations”. These colonies contain multiple queens, and millions of workers. They also destroy native ant species, and trash ecologies.
Ants are particularly prominent among invasive species. One type of ant in particular, Lasius neglectus, (so called because it was ignored and not formally classified until 1990), is considered a serious threat to Europe and the UK. These ants are capable of producing huge populations. Since its discovery it has been found in 100 new locations.
Science Daily reports on the new study by European scientists:
"When I saw this ant for the first time, I simply could not believe there could be so many garden ants in the same lawn", says Professor Boomsma, one of the co-discoverers of Lasius neglectus almost 20 years ago.
The invasive garden ant is able to thrive in the temperate climate zones of Europe and Asia, and is therefore the first pest that will be able to make it to the colder temperate regions of Europe and Asia, unless we stop it from doing so. So far, it has reached Jena in Germany, Ghent in Belgium, and Warsaw in Poland.
In other words its range is virtually unlimited in temperate climates. Human transportation is believed to be responsible for taking the ants out of areas where natural controls prevent their growth into a pest species.
There’s another factor at work. Humans are transporting these ants around the world, like the Argentine ant and the red fire ant, but that’s not the whole story.
The supercolonies are arguably the most important and most effective possible step in ant evolution. Ant colonies with single queens are vulnerable, and fall to bits without their queens. They also fight expensive territorial wars with other ant species, including their own, in their natural habitats.
The supercolonies change the parameters. They take over huge areas, and completely change the ecology. They’re the dominant predators. They exterminate other species, very effectively. These ant “empires” are largely immune to invasion and natural disasters. In short, they’ve beaten extinction.
The supercolonies are definitely a modern thing. As far as I know, there’s no indication of them in prehistory. Big colonies like leaf cutters and nomadic hordes of army and driver ants are well known, but they don’t operate on the scale of the supercolonies.
They may well be one of the most effective survival methodologies ever evolved by any species. We might be watching biological history starting a new phase of life on Earth.
The ramifications for humans are potentially huge. Insects and their related biomass control a lot of the world's ecological mechanisms. If the ants change the mix of species by wiping out their prey, they also change the ecology, practically instantly, and permanently, if the displaced or exterminated prey species can’t be reintroduced.
People might not have been following Solomon’s advice too strenuously about considering the ways of ants. This, however, looks like a lesson we’re not going to miss, whether we like it or not.
More about Ant supercolonies, Invasive species, Ecology
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