Surrogate habitats demonstrate the invasion potential of the African pugnacious ant
Many ant species are highly invasive and are a significant component of disturbed ecosystems. They can have a major suppressive effect upon indigenous invertebrates, including other ants. Despite overwhelming circumstantial evidence for the ecological resourcefulness of many ants, there appears to be no experimental evidence illustrating the habitat breadth of a potentially invasive ant species. We demonstrate here that a particularly opportunistic and locally dominant ant Anoplolepis custodiens, which is a major indigenous African pest, overrides habitat structure to maintain its population level. We compared A. custodiens activity, morphology, foraging behaviour and ant species diversity in artificially established surrogate habitats (cover crops) in a vineyard containing an ample food resource in the form of the honeydew-producing mealybug Planococcus ficus. These cover crops were chosen so as to create highly altered habitats. The ant's ability to overcome these potentially suppressive habitat conditions hinged on its tight mutualism with the mealybug, and on its chasing away mealybug parasitoids. This ant species is predicted to be a latent invasive beyond Africa. It is unlikely to be impeded once it has established a foothold in a variety of novel habitats. It could locally invade to obtain food resources in a wide range of habitat types. Furthermore, in agricultural systems, cover crops are unlikely to control such an ant. Potential invasives such as this ant should be flagged as important quarantine suspects. © Springer 2006.