Using evolutionary science to fight fire ants

May 17, 2009

No real Texan would ever entertain the slightest doubt about the accuracy of evolution theory, once that Texan understood how evolution helps fight the imported Argentine fire ant, Solenopsis invictaAnd, who could invent flies that turn the tiny ants into zombies as their larva eat the brains of the ants?

Evolution theory suggests that predators, or at least a parasite, exists for almost every species on Earth.  Fire ants, though seemingly invincible (hence the species name, invicta), also have predators and parasites.  Control of the ants may be a function of finding the right natural enemy of the ant.

Caption from TAES:  As the eggs of a new type of phorid fly develops inside the heads of red imported fire ants, it takes over the control of the host, said Dr. Scott Ludwig, Texas AgriLife Extension Service integrated pest management specialist. Ludwig released fire ants infested with the parasite at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Overton on April 29. (Texas AgriLife Extension photo by Robert Burns)

Caption from TAES: As the egg of a new type of phorid fly develops inside the heads of red imported fire ants, it takes over the control of the host, said Dr. Scott Ludwig, Texas AgriLife Extension Service integrated pest management specialist. Ludwig released fire ants infested with the parasite at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Overton on April 29. (Texas AgriLife Extension photo by Robert Burns)

Bill Hannah reduces the science to a good lay explanation in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

It sounds like something out of science fiction: zombie fire ants. But it’s all too real.

Fire ants wander aimlessly away from the mound.

Eventually their heads fall off, and they die.

The strange part is that researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension Service say making “zombies” out of fire ants is a good thing.

“It’s a tool — they’re not going to completely wipe out the fire ant, but it’s a way to control their population,” said Scott Ludwig, an integrated pest management specialist with the AgriLife Extension Service in Overton, in East Texas.

The tool is the tiny phorid fly, native to a region of South America where the fire ants in Texas originated. Researchers have learned that there are as many as 23 phorid species along with pathogens that attack fire ants to keep their population and movements under control.

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