Study shows behavioral, physiological changes in ants disturbed by development, urban sprawl

Research focusing on changes in the physiology and behavior of ants based on their environment hopes to shed light on other ant and animal species evolving during urbanization. Credit: Texas A&M AgriLife, Michael Miller

Research by Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientists at the Texas A&M Department of Entomology showed that a common ant species undergoes physiological and behavioral changes in unnatural environments.

“Consistent Features of Urban Adaptation in an Indigenous, Urban Invader and Tapinoma Sedentary,” published in Molecular Ecology, including work by lead author Alexander Blumenfeld, a former graduate research assistant; Ed Vargo, Ph.D., senior researcher and endowed chair of urban and structural entomology; Anjel Helms, Ph.D., a chemical ecologist and assistant professor; and Pierre-André Eyer, postdoctoral research associate, all in the Department of Entomology.

“Urbanization is a growing habitat around the world, and it is becoming increasingly important for organisms to develop ways to live when their natural environment is disrupted,” Vargo said. “Studies like this look at key questions about this change: ‘Can they adapt to urban environments and how?'”

Environment influences the behavior of ants, chemical changes

The study focused on Tapinoma sessile, a relatively small ant species commonly known as the house ant or sugar ant. It is the most common house invading ant in the US

In its native environment, the house ant creates small, single-queen colonies that are usually found under leaf litter, rocks and logs, Vargo said. But in suburban/urban environments, these house ants build ever-expanding colonies with multiple queens around artificial structures such as sidewalks, planters, and landscape mulch.

Vargo said the study offers a wide range of scientific applications related to biological and behavioral change stimulated by environmental conditions in the animal kingdom. It could also provide insight into how invasive species interact with environments that are new to them.

“The change is very similar to invasive ants once they move from their native range to an invasive area,” he said. “The idea is to better understand this syndrome in an ant species that can occupy a small, inconspicuous colony that then becomes an economic and environmental problem as harmful colonies get bigger and bigger.”

Answering questions about adaptive evolution

Researchers used a large genetic database to identify the chemical and behavioral changes that affected the ants’ social organization, Vargo said. They investigated and compared population genetics and breeding structure within and between ants in different urban and undisturbed natural locations within their range.

Fragrant domestic ants were observed and analyzed at natural and disturbed sites across the country, including Indiana, Arkansas, Colorado and California.

The team analyzed the ant’s chemistry, such as hydrocarbons, genetic makeups of colonies and behaviors, such as aggression toward familial and outsider ants, and found large differences based on the environment, Vargo said.

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The study found that domestic ants in urban and natural areas showed adaptations that resulted in genetic concentration. Vargo said that in their natural habitat, house ant queens usually leave the colony they were born in, fly to another suitable location, and try to establish a new colony. Queens in urban colonies stay in the nest and expand the colony instead of leaving.

As a result, urban queens were closely related and less aggressive toward ants with genetic relatedness. Behavioral analyzes showed that ants in supercolonies were aggressive towards ants with external genetics.

In addition, polydome colonies, which are ant colonies that are spatially separated but socially connected, were only present in urban habitats, Vargo said. This suggests that domestic ants only create supercolonies in developed areas. Ants from different urban areas shared some genetic similarities, suggesting they adapt to traits common in the urban environment.

As the next step, researchers plan to compare stable isotopes in the ants to look at dietary changes and how they might relate to natural versus urban environments and possible contributing factors such as temperature and the urban heat island effect.

Vargo said the researchers have hypotheses, but no data yet on how and why changes occurred.

The research was initiated by Blumenfeld, who was a doctoral student in Vargo’s lab and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University. He said he is interested in answering questions related to adaptive evolution in animals, regardless of classification or species, and whether they are invasive or adapting to human-made disturbances, including cities.

“The study highlights the influence of urbanization on the evolutionary course of species,” he said. “It’s important for us to answer questions related to adaptive evolution, whether it’s an invasive species or a forest species that adapts to urban environments.”

The weird genetics of tawny crazy ants can help them thrive in new environments

More information:
Alexander J. Blumenfeld et al, Consistent Signatures of Urban Adaptation in an Indigenous, Urban Invader and Tapinoma Seated, Molecular Ecology (2021). DOI: 10.1111/mec.16188

Provided by Texas A&M University

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