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Invasive species: Those who live together invade better

While the spread of imported fire ants has received much public attention, another invader has been quietly sucking the juices from plants in our lawns and fields: a legless mealybug. In a recent study published in the September issue of the peer-reviewed journal Ecology, scientists have discovered that these bugs may be a possible key to the success of the infamous invasive fire ants.

"Widespread association of the invasive ant Solenopsis invicta with an invasive mealybug," a study by Ken R. Helms and S. Bradleigh Vinson of Texas A&M University, started after the scientists noticed mealybugs and aphids living in underground shelters close to fire ant colonies.

"It seemed clear that there was potentially something important to it all," said Helms.

Helms and Vinson studied grasses and plants from four sites in east Texas, looking for mealybugs and aphid colonies on or near the base of plants. They took samples of mealybugs and aphids from over 2100 shelters around 86 fire ant mounds throughout the spring, summer, and fall, when the ants are most active. With the mass of bugs they collected, they went to work determining how many and what types of aphids and mealybugs were present. During their study, Vinson and Helms also noticed the ants built the shelters for the other insects out of nearby materials on the ground. The researchers found that almost 70% of the biomass collected from the underground shelters near the ant colonies was the invasive mealybug Antonia graminis.

Of Asian origin, these legless creatures were first noticed in the US in the 1940's. How exactly they entered the United States and spread is unclear. A. graminis, currently exists in over 80 countries around the world, a successful and well traveled invader. Native aphids and other native varieties of mealybugs, some with legs, others without, were found in the shelters too, but nowhere near the amount of the legless invader.

The researchers aren
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Contact: Annie Drinkard
annie@esa.org
Ecological Society of America
12-Sep-2002


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