Tuesday, May 26, 2015

In Defense of an Invasive Species - Fire Ants

Solenopsis invicta Buren - The red imported fire ant. 
A head-on view showing the jaws and teeth.  I like the next image more, but lots of people who visit the lab seem to really like this one.

Head view showing some of the diagnostic characteristics used to identify the red imported fire ant.

My lab recently began a project to collect and catalog all of the species of ants in several counties in eastern Texas.  As a result, I spend a lot of time hunting for and watching ants. 

In Texas we have a big problem with the red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta. Fire ants bite and sting.  When disturbed they give off an alarm pheromone and go crazy.  They grab hold of your skin or clothes with their jaws to get the leverage they need to jab their stinger into you.  Find yourself standing in the wrong place and you can have a rather unhappy experience.  (In one case I was watching some beetles mating on a flower and was standing on a fire ant mound.  They let me know about it.) 

In February and March my students and I began developing methods for using baited traps for our research, and the only ants that were active in late winter/early spring were fire ants.  They were great for our experiments. We didn’t disturb their mounds because we wanted to take advantage of their normal foraging behavior.  Leaving the mounds alone and taking a second to look before I put my hands and knees down pretty much eliminated getting stung. Duh!

The fire ant is a classic example of an invasive species, a non-native or alien species in an ecosystem which causes economic harm, environmental harm, or harms human health. (1) Introduced into the United States through Mobile, Alabama in the 1930s, these little ants have spread to nine states, covering 260 million acres.  (2)

Fire ants cause lots of problems. They pile into electrical boxes, displace other ant species, kill small animals, make a certain proportion of some crops unharvestable by combine, and aggressively defend their territory, even if you are the one who owns that territory.  For the 1% of the human population that is hypersensitive, they can be a major health problem.  (2, 3)

But I would like to stand up for the fire ant just a little.  It is not the demon menace sent here to make our lives miserable; it is doing exactly what it is supposed to do – competing with other species for available resources in the environment and passing its genes on to the next generation.  

Think about that first fire ant colony that got accidentally (I hope) shipped into Alabama.  No species is simply going to say “Oops!  I don’t belong here so I am just going to stop eating and stop breeding.”  They are going to fight to survive by competing for what they need and spreading into any new habitats that will support them. That is how species survive.  It is, by the way, exactly what humans do, too.

But what about all of the other species that fire ants have displaced or adversely affected in some way?  Isn’t it unfair and that these mean old fire ants came and replaced them? 

It isn’t a matter of fair or unfair – it is natural selection.  Limited resources mean that the species that most successfully competes for those limited resources survives.  There is no fair or unfair in nature; there is only survive or go extinct.

Why are invasive species so bad?  They are bad because we humans have officially and legally said so.  It is very much like the difference between a weed and a wildflower.  If it is growing in a field, a plant with a pretty flower is a wildflower, but if it is growing in your yard and sticking up out of the grass, it is a weed.

Look back at the description of an invasive species and notice that it involves three things – harm to the economy, human health, or the environment. The first two are directly related to the effect that any species has on us.  And harm to the environment?  Fire ants do decrease biodiversity, but they are not an oil spill or a destroyed nuclear reactor.  They don’t kill and displace everything. They interact with the other organisms in their environment, for good or bad.

It is also important to remember that for millions and millions of years, species have been moving from one ecosystem to another, sometimes across thousands of miles of ocean.  The competition between native species and invading species is as old as life.  Successful invading species become native species. (4)

But I suspect that the main reason that most people don’t like invasive species is because humans don’t like change.  In fact, we downright hate change.  Why can’t things just stay the way they always were?  If you are talking about living things remember – to stay the same is the very best way to go extinct.

Until I started this research, like most people in our area, I would have told you that I hated these little suckers, but I am slowly changing my mind.  I am not saying that I like fire ants or am even the slightest bit happy about sharing my environment with them, but I do greatly admire their adaptability.

The business end of the fire ant - the stinger.

The stinger of the fire ant magnified 1000 x.  Notice the backward facing barbs on the stinger.  Ouch!!
The 10 segments of the fire ants antenna.


(1) What is an invasive species? (2012, November 18). Retrieved May 5, 2015, from National Invasive Species Information Center website: http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/whatis.shtml 

(2) History of the red imported fire ant. (n.d.). Retrieved May 26, 2015, from

(3) [University of Florida]. (n.d.). Retrieved May 26, 2015, from Featured Creatures website:

(4) de Queiroz, A. (2014). The monkey's voyage: how improbable journeys shaped the history of life. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Yonley's Bark

I know what you are thinking - what the heck is a Yonley?

Dave Yonley is one of my amazingly talented colleagues here at Eastfield College.  Dave is a videographer/film maker for the college and does truly outstanding work. (He even makes me look good!)

A few weeks ago Dave was on vacation in sunny Florida, walking around and taking in the sights - the ocean, the beaches, and the palm trees.

One of Yonley's photos from Florida
Dave came across a piece of bark that had fallen off a palm tree and decided to bring it back to Texas. He gave me some of it for my microscopes.

This is Dave Yonley.  He really doesn't like to be photographed, which is kind of ironic since he spends his work day filming other people, but I conned him into posing with his palm tree bark.
What caught Dave's eye was the pattern of the cellulose fibers that make up the bark.  Even in the picture above you can see at least two distinct layers of fibers produced at 90 degrees to each other. This makes the bark extremely strong.

This is the underside of the bark.  Note the wide strips - probably where it was attached to the tree, and the thinner fibers in different layers. [Camera image - taken outside]
Another view of the underside of the bark.  At first glance it looks like fabric, but unlike fabric, the fibers are not interwoven. [Camera image - taken outside.]
This image was taken with a dissecting microscope.  You can see that the flattened strips of bark also contain fibers.

Here is a look at the stringy fibers deeper in the bark.  
Scanning electron microscope view of the stringy fibers. Notice the wide range of sizes. [SEM image; 30x]
The diameter of a human hair is about 80 microns.  Here you can see that some of these fibers are smaller than a hair. [SEM image; 369x]  By the way, a micron, the unit on the image, is one-one millionth of a meter.
Scanning electron microscope view of the flat strips on the underside of the bark.  [SEM image; 218x]

In this image you can begin to see the cells that make up the structure of the bark.  [SEM image; 129x]
The cells to the left of the image divided in a flat plane.  To the right of the image is a fiber which, as you will see farther down, is formed by bundles of cells.  [SEM image; 450x]
Now, let's flip the bark over and take a look at the outer layer.

The top of the bark has an extra layer of fuzzy fibers.  

A closer view of the outer layer of fibers.  

Scanning electron microscope view of fuzzy fibers.  These look very much like the trichomes found on the leaves of many plants. [SEM image; 45x]
At this magnification you can see that these fibers are composed of strands of single cells, not bundles.  [SEM image;  [750x]
To show the composition of the palm tree bark, I cut a small section with a razor blade and then mounted it edge-on.

This edge-on view of palm tree bark is a composite of two pictures.  The fuzzy layer is at the top. Below that area several layers of fibers of different sizes laid down at right angles.  At the very bottom of the image is a flat layer.  [SEM image; 30x]
Cross-section of topmost fuzzy layer.  [SEM image; 50x]
Cross-section of fibers with fuzzy layer at the top of the image.  The red arrows indicate the single cells that make up the fuzzy layer.  [SEM image; 140x]

Cross section of a fiber showing the arrangement of individual cells.  The bundle is slightly flattened from being cut with a razor blade.  [SEM image; 300x]
What Dave found intriguing was the amazing strength of the sheet of bark collected from the palm tree, a strength resulting from many small, cellulose fibers being laid down in different directions. 

Natural, super-strong structures like this, the result of evolution and cell division, have obviously influenced the development of human-engineered materials including fabrics, ropes, and even steel cables.  Not bad for a palm tree.

The images in this blog are covered by a Creative Commons License.  They may be downloaded, used and/or modified for non-commercial purposes.
Murry Gans
Eastfield College
Mesquite, TX