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Wildlife Spotlight: Amazing Ants!

PictureHarvester Ants

​Most of us know ants as tiny pests that we’d rather not have in our kitchens, but these amazing little insects have an outsize role to play in nature. The Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks are home to several native ant species that play an important role in the ecosystem. These tiny arthropods turn over and aerate soil, allowing oxygen and water to reach plant roots. Their movements aid in seed dispersal, contributing to the growth of new plants. Ants are also food for many larger animals on the Landmarks, such as beetles and spiders.

Ants have some fascinating attributes. They have colonized nearly every land mass on Earth, with the exception of Antarctica and a few remote, inhospitable islands, and are thought to comprise 15-25% of terrestrial animal biomass. Ant society is complex and cooperative. Ants have a division of labor comprised of different social castes and work roles. They are able to communicate with one another and work together to solve problems and attain better quality of living for their colony. They are some of the few non-mammal animals that have been observed engaging in interactive teaching – that is not merely learning through imitation but actively showing one another how to perform tasks. Ants can also learn to adapt their behaviors based on prior experience. Their cooperation, resourcefulness and propensity for adaptation explain their success.

In Southern California, native ant species face competition from invasive species like Argentine ants, which have established widespread presence in Mediterranean climate zones. Argentine ants are one of the most widespread invasive species in the world, frequently pushing out native ant species and endangering other species in the area that depend on ants for their own survival. In contrast with other ants, Argentine ants rarely attack other colonies of the same species. This live-and-let-live approach leads to Argentine ant “supercolonies” that can thrive in non-native lands, without the complication of turf wars that other ant species frequently engage in.

The survival of native ants is important to the health of other animal and plant species on the Landmarks. Irvine Ranch Conservancy scientists monitor native to non-native ant ratios to keep track of the balance. Through monitoring and invasive species control, IRC hopes native ants will thrive in harmony with the rest of their natural environment.