Fire ants vs. Crazy ants: Which will dominate Texas?

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HOUSTON - Fire ants are known for their painful stings. They also dominate other ant species with their venom, according to researchers at the University of Texas.

For those who loathe fire ants, the good news is they may be displaced in Southeast Texas. The bad news is their top spot may be taken over by crazy ants.

"As this plays out, unless something new and different happens, crazy ants are going to displace fire ants from much of the southeastern U.S. and become the new ecologically dominant invasive ant species," said Ed LeBrun, a research associate with the Texas Invasive Species Research Program at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory in UT Austin's College of Natural Science.

Both ants are from South America where crazy ants are kept in control by natural predators. However, those natural enemies are not present in Texas which allows for the ants to march into our homes and electrical boxes unchecked, not even by the fire ant.

According to LeBrun's latest study, crazy ants have the ability to detoxify themselves from the fire ant's venom.

LeBrun said he was at a field site watching fire ants guard a dead cricket they found first.

Typically fire ants surround their food and other ants stay clear because of their venom. But during his field observation, LeBrun noted the crazy ants had no fear.

"The crazy ants charged into the fire ants, spraying venom," said LeBrun. "When the crazy ants were dabbed with fire ant venom, they would go off and do this odd behavior where they would curl up their gaster [an ant's modified abdomen] and touch their mouths."

This is what they are doing according to lab experiments. The crazy ants were secreting formic acid from the tip of its abdomen and then transferring it to its mouth.

From there, they would smear their bodies with the formic acid resulting in a venom antidote.

During testing, researchers sealed the crazy ants' glands with nail polish. They would then put them in a vial with red fire ants. The results: half the crazy ants died from the fire ant venom.

In the control group where the glands of the crazy ants weren't sealed, 98 percent survived the fire ant attack.

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