Researchers investigate if Hurricane Harvey helped fire ants spread in Texas

March 26 (UPI) — Scientists at Rice University are trying to measure the impact of Hurricane Harvey on fire ant populations, an invasive species common throughout the South.

Previous studies suggest invasive species take over and thrive in damaged ecosystems. Hurricane Harvey offered ecologists another chance to test the theory.

“Hurricane Harvey was, among other things, a grand ecological experiment,” Rice ecologist Tom Millersaid in a news release. “It offers a unique opportunity to explore whether a single extreme-weather event can re-shuffle an entire community of organisms.”

With support from the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research, Miller and his colleagues are conducting monthly surveys of fire ant and tawny crazy ant populations in Big Thicket, a heavily forested national preserve in southeast Texas. Scientists at Rice had been monitoring research sites in Big Thicket for three years prior to the arrival of Hurricane Harvey, noting the steady encroachment of the two invasive ant species.

“We now want to know whether Harvey accelerated this invasion process,” said researcher Sarah Bengston.

In addition to measuring species’ abundance and distribution, researchers will also collect and analyze genetic samples to determine whether Hurricane Harvey proved advantageous for certain traits.

“There are dozens of native ant species in the preserve that provide valuable ecosystem services like decomposition and pest control,” ecologist Scott Solomon said. “Fire ants and crazy ants, which are each native to South America, are noxious invasive pests that tend to overwhelm and drive out almost all native ant species. If the floods cleaned the slate by drowning all the native ant colonies in the area, our hypothesis is that this may provide a competitive advantage to invaders.”

There wasn’t much ant activity during this year’s cold winter, but as temperatures warm, the insects will reemerge.

The research is similar to work being carried out by scientists at the University of Oklahoma. Researchers there continue to monitor the impacts of historic flooding on insect and invertebrate communities in south-central Oklahoma. The early results of their efforts showed the flood caused a sharp decrease in abundance, as well as declines in species presence, biomass and diversity.

As extreme weather evens become more common due to climate change, it is important for scientists to understand how local ecosystems will be affected.

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