Ants in Ethiopia Are Poised to Launch a Global Invasion

An invasive species in the country has begun forming wide-ranging "supercolonies" that, with a little help from humans, could easily spread far and wide.

Scientists performing a biodiversity survey in Ethiopia say they've come across an ant species that has all the earmarks of becoming a global invader.

Researchers from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences spotted the species Lepisiota canescens in the ancient forests in the northern part of the country.

L. canescens, they say, is displaying signs of forming supercolonies – rare things in the ant world, typified by colonies that move beyond a single nest, sometimes over thousands of miles of terrain. Supercolony ants essentially expand their turf without constraints. They're a threat to structures, crops, and other species and are considered an enemy of biodiversity.

True to that description, the worrisome ant has now moved out of the forests and into farmlands, also closing in on roadways and more urban settings.

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Ethiopia could just be the beginning, say the researchers, who have documented their findings about the ant in a study just published in the journal Insectes Sociaux.

"The species we found in Ethiopia may have a high potential of becoming a globally invasive species. Invasive species often travel with humans, so as tourism and global commerce to this region of Ethiopia continue to increase, so will the likelihood that the ants could hitch a ride, possibly in plant material or even in the luggage of tourists," said the study's lead author, D. Magdalena Sorger, in a statement.

Sorger and the other researchers observed several supercolonies of the ant, the largest of which encompassed 24 miles.

The ant's genus already has a nasty reputation. Another species of Lepisiota temporarily halted shipping out of Australia's Darwin Port in August 2015, when port authorities needed to be sure colonies found on nearby sites could not hitch rides to other ports of call.

Now the ant's exploding numbers in Ethiopia, combined with its known ecologically invasive ways, lead the scientists to fear a global invasion is possible.

"All it takes is one pregnant queen," Sorger said. "That's how fire ants started."

"It is good to have a record of what this species does in its native habitat," Sorger said of the team's research. "Rarely do we know anything about the biology of a species before it becomes invasive."

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