Smoky Mountain Fire Ant Invasion is underway. This small intruder may pose huge problems in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Packing a powerful sting and an invasive history, fire ants are on the move in the mountains, according to research from the highlands Biological Station of western Carolina University.
Fire ants were accidentally introduced from South America in Mobile, Alabama sometime in the early 1930s. This invasive species has proven to be an efficient predator which not only feeds on, but also displaces native insects thus interrupting the food chain for native birds and wildflower pollinators.
Biologist once believed that fire ants could not survive in the higher elevations of southern Appalachia, but a recent study has disproved that theory.
This invasion comes with dire conservation implications for the forested mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. Jim Costa, professor of evolutionary biology at Western Carolina University and executive director of Highlands Biological station. site of a 23-acre research lab, is quoted as saying “…although they will spread and be pests in urban, suburban and agricultural environments in our region, the biggest potential ecological impact of the ants persisting at higher elevations will be in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and especially the national forests…”
Costa said disturbed soil and sunlight along U.S. Service forest roads, logged areas and power line cuts will provide a “toe-hold” for the insects allowing them to “wreak havoc” in adjacent forests.
According to Costa, the ants are adapting to colder winters. Colonies were found to survive at elevations over 4,000 feet and laboratory studies indicate that the ant’s ability to withstand cold is directly related to those collected from higher elevations, adding that those ants are proving to be far more cold hardy than their low-land cousins.
“So, they are here to stay,” said Costa., “their ability to adapt is probably going to be aided by climate change as it gets warmer at higher elevations, but our study results suggest that even in a non-warming scenario they would continue to adapt and spread here.”
The HeySmokies.com expeditionary team encountered their first fire ant hill in Elkmont, GSMNP. If disturbed the ants aggressively defend their home. Multiple fire ant bites can be a very serious health risk to small children and pets. Like all wild animals and insects, it is always wise to keep a safe distance when you encounter fire ants. For more information about Smoky Mountain wildlife visit NPS.gov.
Source material – PLOS ONE Journal