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Biodiversity Blog


The Terrifying Science Behind Floating Fire Ant Colonies

Hurricane Harvey has revealed its magnitude through devastating floods and damages, and now it has introduced another scourge -- giant clusters of floating fire ants. 

UT researchers Alex Wild and Larry Gilbert were featured in the New York Times and Washington Post, among other outlets, sharing the science behind these clusters

"I have never, in my entire career as an ant researcher, seen anything like this," Alex Wild, curator of entomology, tweeted. 

Fire ants are well-adapted to hurricanes and tropical storms. As water levels rise, each colony will form waterproof clusters consisting of thousands of ants, larvae and eggs, Gilbert said. 

"Imagine yourself as an ant in a mine with vertical tunnels," Larry Gilbert, director of the Invasive Species laboratory at UT Austin, said. "And now you are just picking up your babies and running uphill. They move up en masse to the top, just like people on roofs."

Gilbert explains that the ants on the outside will continually cycle from the top of the cluster to the bottom, while the queen and larvae are protected in the center. This allows the cluster to stay afloat for several days as the ants look for dry land, or even an unsuspecting human standing nearby.

"You might feel tickling, and then suddenly they are latching on so they can drag that stinger in," Gilbert said. "Once one of them stings it lets off a pheromone, and that makes everybody sting at once. It is like you are stepping into fire."

Read more from our ant experts in the following publications:

Washington Post: The terrifying science behind floating fire ant colonies — and how to destroy them

New York Times: Fire Ants Are Yet Another Hazard in Houston's Flooded Streets

The AtlanticYes, That's a Huge Floating Mass of Live Fire Ants in Texas

The Verge: Here's how to deal with those clumps of floating fire ants in Houston

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