Chemical Cocktail Turns Argentine Ants Against Each Other

September 22, 2006

Scientists are developing a chemical potion that makes mortal enemies of members of a massive Argentine ant gang that has invaded California.

The cocktail, if successful, could pave the way for the return of native ants, which have been driven from the region by the foreign species, says Neil Tsutsui, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine.

"If we put enough of a dent in the [Argentine ant] population using this, the native ants may compete more successfully against them and do the final bit of elimination," he said.

Chemical scents on Argentine ant bodies, which are about an eighth of an inch (a third of a centimeter) long, allow the arthropods to recognize friend from foe, Tsutsui says. (Get ant photos, facts, and more.)

He and colleagues are developing and testing varieties of synthetic scents—made up of chemicals known as cuticular hydrocarbons—that make friendly ants smell hostile.

The mistaken identity turns the ants against each other in what amounts to a deadly turf war, Tsutsui says.

The researchers reported preliminary findings last week at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Francisco, California.

"With all five compounds initially [created] for testing, the treated ants were attacked by their nest mates," Tsutsui said.

Argentine Invasion

In their native home of South America, Argentine ants are genetically diverse, and their colonies seldom exceed the size of a football field because of turf squabbles, Tsutsui says.

"They waste huge resources fighting other Argentine ant colonies, protecting their colonies from others," he added. "So they are not able to achieve high population densities."

In North America, however, almost all the Argentine ants are related, Tsutsui's research suggests. So the ants work with each other, not against each other.

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