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article imageEuropean fire ants disrupt ecosystems to help spread alien plants

By Karen Graham     Dec 26, 2014 in Science
The European fire ant is an unwanted invasive species in Eastern North America. It has taken over back yards and is capable of a very nasty bite. This ant is a seed disperser, and research has shown they could wreck havoc on our native ecosystems.
In a study taken on by four scientists from the University of Toronto's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, it was found that the European fire ant, Myrmica rubra, disperses the seeds of both native and alien plants. But through a variation of "mutualism" between the European fire ant and invasive plants, the native plants are forced out of the ecosystem.
This interesting study was published in December 24 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B., titled: "Mutualism between co-introduced species facilitates invasion and alters plant community structure."
Native ants, (Aphaenogaster rudis), are seed dispersers, but they are not as effective as the European fire ant. Researchers have always thought that invasive species helped each other to spread, but there has never been reliable proof of the phenomenon. This is referred to as an "invasional meltdown."
Invasional meltdown is a hypothesis used to explain how an ecosystem can be altered by one, human interaction, or two, the additional of an alien species. The interaction of an alien species would also be dependent on the resources available and natural enemies. The hypothesis is still open to argument because there are so many variables to consider.
The University of Toronto researchers set up artificial ecosystems using 42 children's wading pools. Each plastic pool was filled with soil and four species of wildflowers, three native species (sharp-lobed hepatica, Canadian wild ginger and bloodroot), and one alien species, greater celandine.
The group then collected colonies of native woodland ants and European fire ants. The ants were added to the pools and the researchers sat back and watched what the ants did. What they discovered was that both the native and invasive ants had a great effect on plant communities.
Interestingly, the native plants dominated when seeds were dispersed by the native ants, and the invasive plants dominated when dispersed by the alien ants. The big thing the researchers discovered was that the invasive European fire ant is a much more prolific seed disperser that our native ants, and because of this impact, they have proven that European fire ants, along with alien plants, using mutualism can devastate an ecosystem.
More about Fire ants, Invasive species, Ecosystem, Eastern North America, Mutualism
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