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Miracles of Weird: The Tawny Crazy Ant

Species: Nylanderia fulva

Range: Central South America, and regrettably, the southeast US

Weird Feature(s): Takes acid bath to protect itself from red fire ants

The story of the tawny crazy ant is a true David and Goliath scenario – that is, if Goliath was all about flinging death juice onto his enemies and David was all about getting chemically creative to protect himself from it. Regardless, the tawny crazy ant is one of the only animals that can effectively defend itself against the bullies of the insect world – the red fire ant. Lacking our evolutionary ability to unload an entire can of Raid on fire ant nests, the tawny crazy ant instead mixes up its own batch of poison to hit them with. And it doesn’t just use it on the offensive, the tawny crazy ants actually douse themselves in their own poison and somehow use it to detox the fire ants’ lethal venom.

Tawny crazy ants standing tall (figuratively) against fire ants for their rights to a dead rotting something. (New Scientist)

To give you an idea of how powerful the fire ant’s sting is, consider animals it’s able to kill with it. Not only can it make meals out of comparatively massive crickets, it can also kill nestlings of ground dwelling bird species when it’s really hungry. And no, we humans are not safe either – people have died from the violent allergic reactions the stings cause. In fact, it seems that the crazy ant is the only animal that is a truly sufficient match for the fire ant.

To figure out how exactly the tawny crazy ant was able to stand up to the fire ants, scientists placed succulent dead cricket in an area where both of these species live. While all other hungry bugs steered clear of the what the fire ants claimed as theirs, the crazy ants barged right in. To get the show started, the crazy ants stood back on their hind legs and filled the air with their venom to which their adversaries responded by flicking their own neurotoxic fluid from their abdomens right back at the invaders. When the crazy ants were hit, they retreated from the combat zone and started intentionally dousing themselves in their own acidic poison. Scientists are thinking that in this way, the crazy ant venom serves not only as a weapon but also as a chemical neutralizer for fire ant’s particular brand of death juice.

This video from New Scientist shows the whole battle going down and is set to some bumpin’ house music, for those of you who like to learn and rave at the same time.

Fire ants are an invasive species originating in central South America. In the 1930’s, a handful of them were accidentally dropped off in Mobile, AL, and now the infestation has reached as far east as the Carolinas and as far west as Texas, a state which expressly advises one not to mess with it. However, as of late their numbers have been dropping, since the similarly invasive crazy ant has claimed real estate in the same region. Since they are both native to South America, they are effectively reigniting an age old beef in a strange and foreign land.  And even though the crazy ants are taking out a few pesky fire ants, this newer invasive species causes problems of its own. Unlike fire ants, they readily infest homes, providing a whole other brand of pain in the ass to southeastern Americans.  The solution to both ant issues seems pretty clear to me: Outfit more kids with magnifying glasses and wait for the right combination of boredom and sunshine.

HT: New Scientist

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