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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Crazy ants cover themselves in chemicals

Tawny crazy ant standing on cricket leg, expressing detoxification behavior.
[Photograph by Lawrence Gilbert]

The United States Gulf Coast is being overrun by tawny crazy ants. The invasive ant species arrived from South America in the early 2000s and immediately began replacing colonies of fire ants, which had dominated the region since the 1930s. Now, researchers show that these tawny crazy ants have a unique chemical defense that allows them to best the fire ants in battle.

Edward LeBrun and colleagues discovered that tawny crazy ants secrete an acid from their bodies that protects them from the toxic stings of fire ants. Whenever they are stung by a fire ant, the tawny crazy ants will stand on their hind and middle legs and rub the acid all over their bodies, according to the researchers.

This behavior, which detoxifies the ants' bodies, allowed 98% of tawny crazy ants to survive fire ant attacks compared to 48% without the life-saving behavior, they say.

And because the original homes of these antsótawny crazy ants and fire antsówere in northern Argentina, Paraguay and southern Brazil, Lebrun and his colleagues suggest that this potent chemical defense system evolved there, when the ants were first competing against each other for resources.

The researchers also suggest that their findings could help other scientists get rid of invasive species in different regions of the world.