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Invasive Red Fire Ants Found in Europe: Threatening the Continent’s Ecosystems


Red fire ants move towards Sicily, Italy. This is the first sighting of the invasive species in Europe. If these South American insects continue to spread like they have elsewhere, experts fear they could take over the entire continent.

Currently, the red fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) is the world’s fifth most expensive invasive species, causing billions of dollars in environmental damage in many countries.

As the name suggests, this species emits a venomous bite that feels burning. Because these insects gather in groups of more than half a million individuals, they can easily attack and overwhelm prey many times larger than themselves.

As ant colonies spread, they engulf plants and animals, invading and clearing land of wildlife. In Australia, this invasive species almost surpasses the environmental damage caused by feral cats, feral dogs, foxes, camels, rabbits and cane toads combined.

“S. invicta is one of the worst invasive species. It can spread very quickly,” said evolutionary biologist Mattia Menchetti from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Spain, quoted from Science Alert, Thursday (14/9/2023).

“Finding this species in Italy was a big surprise. But we knew a day like this would come,” he said.

Fire ants are similar to invasive weeds in that they spread most easily into areas already disturbed by humans. When humans drastically changed the face of the Earth, ants also followed in our footsteps.

For years, scientists have warned that the global spread of fire ants is inevitable. In the past century, this species has reached Mexico, the southern United States, China, Taiwan, Australia, the Caribbean, Japan, and the Philippines.

Most of these attacks, historically, appear to have originated in the southern United States. With the globalization of modern trade, experts say that fire ants have a greater opportunity to travel on products such as soil, seedling plants, hay or beehives around the world.

It only takes one tainted package to cause all that. Therefore, officials in Europe have attempted to intercept some red fire ant-contaminated products at borders for years.

But if these ants manage to pass through a harbor, they can spread for miles in a short time, flying with the wind or making rafts with their own bodies to float on rivers or flood waters. They could even travel underground.

“For decades, scientists have worried that fire ants would arrive in Europe. We couldn’t believe it when we saw them in person,” Menchetti said.

He and his colleagues first learned about red fire ants when they were sent photos of the species from Sicily. To see the ants directly, the team traveled to an area located near the city of Syracuse.

The researchers found 88 nests on a relatively small plot of land near a river, and the colony already included thousands of worker ants.

“How this species reached this location remains unclear. However, it appears that no large-scale landscaping or planting projects have been undertaken over recent years and it is highly unlikely that this was its first and only arrival point in the area,” the researchers wrote. .

“Proximity to one of the island’s main cargo ports, the port of Augusta (13 km to the north), may be relevant in this case,” they said.

Local residents say they have experienced fire ant stings since at least 2019, meaning the ants may have spread to other areas as well.

By comparing the genetics of Italian fire ants with those of fire ants elsewhere in the world, the researchers said it was most likely that the fire ants came from the US, China or Taiwan and made it to ports in Italy, before spreading to the mainland.

Researchers estimate that around 7% of mainland Europe had a climate suitable for these ‘invaders’, including half of Europe’s urban areas.

“This is particularly concerning because many cities, including London, Amsterdam and Rome, have large ports, which would allow the ants to spread rapidly to more countries and continents,” said biologist Roger Vila of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology.

Menchetti, Vila and their colleagues now plan to destroy as many fire ant nests as possible in Sicily. It is unknown how long they can keep the species from spreading further.

Watch the video “Chinese scientists discover new species while investigating water sources”


2023-09-13 22:44:46
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