How a small group of California ants are challenging the global Argentine ant empire

For those of you keeping track at home (I know you're out there), you can now add "chemical warfare" to the list of things that ants kick ass at.

When faced with invasion by the notoriously destructive Argentine ant, an unassuming species of winter ant native to California has managed to stand its ground in the face of a heretofore-unstoppable foe. What is the winter ant's secret? A lethal toxin secreted from its abdomen that it only expels under dire circumstances.

The discovery was made last summer by a group of Stanford University undergraduates working on a class project under biology professor Deborah M. Gordon.

"I did not believe it at first," said Dr. Gordon. "This [native species] is a group of ants that does not have a sting and you don't see them acting aggressively, but the students were able to show very clearly not just that the winter ants are using poison, but when they use it, how they use it, and what the impact is."

To call that impact significant would be a bit of an understatement. Historically speaking, the Argentine ant is a more or less unstoppable force; although it is native to South America, it has managed to spread to lands as far and wide as Australia, Japan, Hawaii, and Easter Island (to name a few), often leaving whole ecosystems devastated. But California's native winter ant has managed to challenge the Argentine horde, killing them in droves with their unique brand of toxic weaponry. "This is the first well-documented case where a native species is successfully resisting the Argentine ant," said Dr. Gordon.

Many of the students in her class helped co-author a paper with Dr. Gordon, which was published in the April, 2011 issue of PLoS ONE.


Top image and research via PLoS ONE