Fatal Fungus Threatens to Wipe Out Texan Crazy Ants — And That’s Good

  • How to resolve an ant problem with one terrible death at a time.

Some fungi are delicious when cooked, but other are less nice. That’s especially a case with those that infest still-living creatures as parasites.

For example, during last year’s Brood X cicada emergence, we reported about a psychedelic fungus that consumes cicadas’ butts. Now, a different kind of mushroom is targeting certain ants in Texas.

The situation has gotten so bad that the ants are in danger of dying off altogether. And we should all be happy about that.

Now, we’re not advocating for some kind of an all-encompassing ant genocide. Ants serve a valuable role in the ecosystem and life in many places would collapse pretty much completely without them.

But that’s not the case with the tawny crazy ants (that’s their name, we’re not just calling them insane). This invasive species has rapidly started threatening native Texan bug populations.

So, just this once, the parasitic fungus is actually doing the world a favor. And it does it by offering the ants a slow, agonizing death.

Look, a favor’s still a favor.

Photo: Michael Bentley, Wikimedia Commons

An Ant Apocalypse

The tawny crazy ants might have a funny name, but that’s where their pleasantness ends. They’re pretty much a nightmare to live with.

The ants are named the way they are because they move in unpredictable, erratic — even crazy — patterns. They originate from the forests of Brazil and Argentina, from where they made their way to the U.S. most likely on cargo ships.

What makes the crazy ants so problematic is that they’re prolific breeders. Like, ridiculous prolific.

The bugs produce offspring at such a high rate that they can outbreed pretty much all native forms of insect and non-insect animals in Texas. But that’s not the only reason why they’re such an issue.

Although the crazy ants are a past even in their native lands, their ability to wreak havoc is limited. There, they tend to form isolated, self-contained nests that constantly war with surrounding ant populations.

But the change of scenery has also changed their form of habitation. In Texas, the ants form sprawling interconnected colonies that recognize each other and engage in jolly cooperation.

Their nests “spread like a bacterial plaque across a landscape,” Edward LeBrun, a research scientist at the Department of Integrative Biology at University of Texas at Arlington, told LiveScience.

“Every meter there’s a nest, and that’s over many square kilometers. How many ants are there? Many, many, many millions,” LeBrun described.

‘Kind of a Horror Show’

This ginormous mass of ants is, unsurprisingly, a problem. They swarm over the landscape, consuming anything and everything in their path.

“It’s kind of a horror show,” LeBrun told the AFP news agency.

Not only do they consume what other animals could eat, they also eat the animals themselves. They’ve slowly started to overwhelm native Texan insects, spiders, scorpions, and even small mammals and reptiles.

According to LeBrun, at the Estero Llano Grande State Park, the flood of ants flows over tree trunks, rocks, everything. They’ve completely annihilated several local ants, snakes, and birds.

Not only do the crazy ants cause problems in nature, but also in human habitation. For some reason, they’re particularly attracted to electrical systems.

In Texas, the ants regularly short circuit breaker boxes, AC units, and sewage pumps. And people also have to deal with carpets of ants swarming around their homes.

Controlled Infection

But what nature breaks, it sometimes also finds a way to fix. A small fungus might soon eradicate what pesticides have at best only slowed down.

In 2015, LeBrun and his colleagues discovered M. nylanderiae, a previously unknown microsporidian — a kind of microscopic fungus. This fungus is very good at killing off the ants with extreme prejudice.

The fungus’ spores have a tightly coiled barb, like a tiny harpoon attached to a spring. When a crazy ant swallows a spore, it plunged the harpoon into the ant’s soft tissues.

The spore then pumps its fungal juices into the ant’s cells, hijacking them to replicate itself. It repeats this process until the ant is nothing but a desiccated, fungus-ridden corpse.

Since ants aren’t particularly picky with their food, it’s likely another crazy ant will soon cannibalize the corpse. And so, this horrible fungus literally eats the connected crazy ant colonies from the inside out.

After first observing the fungus, LeBrun and his colleagues wondered if they could use the fungus to control the invasive ants. The answer is, yes. It’s great for it.

The fungus is so specialized that it only infects crazy ants. After LeBrun introduced it to Estano Llano Grande two years ago, it has practically destroyed the park’s entire crazy ant population, leaving other bugs untouched.

So, thanks for that, fungus. You nightmarish, spore-spewing, helpful little thing, you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.