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Invasive ants territorial when neighbors are not kin

The largest supercolony extends about 600 miles throughout coastal California and abuts three of the four smaller colonies. At the territory borders, ants from different colonies engage in intense battles that result in the deaths of considerable numbers of workers. Thomas collected dead workers along small sections of the borders weekly. She estimated that border skirmishes around one of the smaller colonies, at Lake Hodges north of San Diego, killed at least 15 million workers over the six month study.

However, ants did not fight when placed with ants from a distant location in the same supercolony. Coauthors Christine Payne-Makrisâ and Andrew Suarez from the University of Illinois, Urbana and Neil Tsutsui from U.C. Irvine found that across the large geographical range of a supercolony ants were very genetically similar, but they were genetically distinct from ants in neighboring supercolonies. The researchers say that by keeping peace with their kin, the ants may be able to devote more resources to breeding rather than competing.

"Territory defense is expensive both in time and workers," explained Thomas, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Western Australia. "If nests invest this time and workforce into collecting resources and raising larvae instead of defending territories, then colonies should grow at a much faster rate."

In their native Argentina, aggressive interactions between colonies are much more common and colonies are significantly smaller. When Argentine ants were introduced to California 100 years ago, they spread widely because they did not encounter other colonies of Argentine ants. The biologists think that the distinct supercolonies in southern California arose from separate introductions of the ants, possibly in the soil of plants used in landscaping.

They hope that a better understanding of how the ants distinguish kin from non-kin, and the mechanisms that prevent gene flow between colo
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Source:University of California - San Diego


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