Crazy ants learn to neutralize fire ants' deadly venom

In what researchers at the University of Texas believe is the first example of its kind, crazy ants have found a way to detoxify fire ants' venom.

Crazy are scared of nobody. Even bigger ants. University of Texas/ YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

It seems only appropriate that as people become crazier, ants should too.

So I bring news of the insect world mirroring the path of human development, as it heads toward the infinite cliff.

Once upon a time, fire ants blazed a trail through all that they encountered. Venomous little things, they engendered fear like Viking marauders.

Then along came crazy ants. These, delightfully named Nylanderia fulva came from Argentina and Brazil. They tangoed and sambaed their way across to the United States.

If you live in southern regions, you might have encountered them in very close proximity, as they are known to crawl into iPhones and mess with them severely.

However, they now have a new trick. They can neutralize the venom of the fire ant.

No, of course you shouldn't take my word for it. Instead, please examine the above video from the University of Texas in Austin.

The scientists there are delighted to have noticed how clever the crazies have become. (You surely must know one or two of the human equivalent.)

When they come into contact with a fire ant, they end up being smeared with the latter's venom. Fire ants would not make for a good date. They lose their temper very easily.

Indeed, the fire ant's venom is two to three times as toxic as DDT on a per weight basis.

However, the crazy ant has worked out a way to detoxify itself with dexterous maneuvers.

In the Texas experiments, crazies managed to survive the fire ants' worst poison with a 98 percent success rate.

Their method begins with secreting formic acid from a specialized gland at the tip of their abdomen. Next, they shove it in their mouths. Finally, they use their mouths to smear it all over themselves, like tourists slathering on the suntan.

The researchers aren't sure how the formic counteracts the venom. They just know that it does.

Ed LeBrun, a research associate with the Texas invasive species research program at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory in UT Austin's College of Natural Sciences detailed a battle between the two .

He said: "The crazy ants charged into the fire ants, spraying venom. When the crazy ants were dabbed with fire ant venom, they would go off and do this odd behavior where they would curl up their gaster (an ant's modified abdomen) and touch their mouths."

You have surely performed the same maneuver late at night -- involuntarily -- on several occasions. It didn't attract the attention of your amorous target. However, for the crazy ant, it's one important means by which they're coming to dominate.

LeBrun said: "As this plays out, unless something new and different happens, crazy ants are going to displace fire ants from much of the southeastern US and become the new ecologically dominant invasive ant species."

It isn't just fire ants who should be checking their insurance policies. Wherever crazy ants set up shop, the number of insects, spiders, centipedes, and crustaceans decreases.

So how can they be stopped? Apparently, only by land that is too rough and arid for them.

If you'd like a bright side to this impending doom, it's that crazy ants are the tortoises of the insect world. They move around 600 feet a year. Only you can (inadvertently) make them move faster.

Should you be a traveler, camper, or merely on the run from authorities in several southern states, LeBrun suggests: "If you have an RV, inspect the campgrounds you visit before parking for the night. If you live in infested areas, don't store food in your vehicles and consider treating your camper with insecticides several days before a trip. Consult with a pest control professional as to the best products to use. Not storing food in any vehicle parked in an infested area is also a good idea."

So there you have it. The crazy ants aren't so crazy after all. They're smart. They could be the villains in a future Bond movie. They look at fire ants as their equivalent of Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope.

You have been warned.

Crazy clever. University of Texas/ YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET
 

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