Trap-jaw ant species are active hunters with venomous stings and jaws powerful enough to fling themselves through the air. According to new research, they are also spreading into new territory in the southeastern United States.
“The fact that some of these species are spreading is interesting, in part because these giant ants have managed to expand their territory without anyone noticing,” said Magdalena Sorger, a PhD candidate at North Carolina State University and co-author of a new paper describing the ant species. “We know very little about these ants, including how they interact with native ant species in the areas they’re invading.”
One species called Odontomachus haematodus was unofficially recorded in Alabama back in 1956. But now researchers have officially confirmed that the species has spread across the Gulf Coast, at least as far east as Pensacola, Florida.
The new paper, published in the journal Zootaxa, offers a broad overview of trap-jaw ant species — all of which are in the genus Odontomachus — in the United States. The paper is designed to help scientists identify which species of trap-jaw ants they’re dealing with.
“Haemotodus is particularly interesting because it is larger and more aggressive than other trap-jaw ants in the United States,” Sorger said.
As recently as a few years ago, another species called Odontomachus ruginodis was thought to be confined to the Orlando region, and points south. But now Sorger has confirmed a record of ruginodis more than a hundred miles north of Orlando, in Gainesville, Florida.
“I found ruginodis in landscaped areas near buildings — outside a mall, outside my hotel — usually in the mulch underneath hedges,” she said. “The species could have traveled even farther than Gainesville, but no one has looked for it.”
Not all of the trap-jaw species are on the move, however. Sorger also studies Odontomachus relictus, a species that is found only in endangered scrub habitat on central Florida’s ancient sand ridges.
She found that relictus ants on separate ridges displayed different behaviors and had distinct genetic profiles, indicating that they may have evolved into separate species.
“If these two O. relictus populations are, in fact, distinct species, it would make them the rarest ants in North America,” Sorger said. “I’m hoping to resolve this question soon, via more genetic analyses.”
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