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Will fire ant population boost this spring because of Hurricane Harvey?

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HOUSTON – A study at Rice University will check to see if Hurricane Harvey caused a boost to the fire ant population this spring.

Ecologists at the university said extreme weather, such as Harvey, may have an impact on invasive pests, pollinators and other species that can affect the well-being of humans.

Rice ecologists Tom Miller, Sarah Bengston and Scott Solomon, along with their students, are evaluating whether Harvey increased opportunities for invasion by exotic ants, the press release stated.

Rice University ecologists Michael Saucedo '17, Tom Miller and Sarah Bengston at Big Thicket National Preserve near Beaumont, Texas. The researchers are studying whether Hurricane Harvey's unprecedented floods gave a competitive boost to invasive fire ants and crazy ants.
Rice University ecologists Michael Saucedo '17, Tom Miller and Sarah Bengston at Big Thicket National Preserve near Beaumont, Texas. The researchers are studying whether Hurricane Harvey's unprecedented floods gave a competitive boost to invasive fire ants and crazy ants.

"Hurricane Harvey was, among other things, a grand ecological experiment," said Miller, the principal investigator on the grant and the Godwin assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in Rice's department of biosciences. "It offers a unique opportunity to explore whether a single extreme-weather event can reshuffle an entire community of organisms."

Funding from the National Science Foundation's Rapid Response Research (RAPID) program will help the team document changes in the ant communities and test whether the hurricane changes are transient.

The team will also test if Harvey floodwaters favored a specific type of ants, such as those with larger bodies or more-protected nests, over others.

"There are dozens of native ant species in the preserve that provide valuable ecosystem services like decomposition and pest control," said Solomon, an ant expert, co-principal investigator on the grant and associate teaching professor of biosciences. "Fire ants and crazy ants, which are each native to South America, are noxious invasive pests that tend to overwhelm and drive out almost all native ant species. If the floods cleaned the slate by drowning all the native ant colonies in the area, our hypothesis is that this may provide a competitive advantage to invaders."

The research teams conducted monthly testings at the Big Thicket test sites a few weeks after Hurricane Harvey hit and will continue to gather data for one year.

Rice University ecologists Michael Saucedo '17, Tom Miller and Sarah Bengston at Big Thicket National Preserve near Beaumont, Texas. The researchers are studying whether Hurricane Harvey's unprecedented floods gave a competitive boost to invasive fire ants and crazy ants
Rice University ecologists Michael Saucedo '17, Tom Miller and Sarah Bengston at Big Thicket National Preserve near Beaumont, Texas. The researchers are studying whether Hurricane Harvey's unprecedented floods gave a competitive boost to invasive fire ants and crazy ants

"It was a cold winter, and there wasn't much ant activity," he said. "As temperatures warm up, we'll be interested to see which ants come back the soonest and in what numbers."


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