Fire ants, one of the most aggressive species in the world, have finally arrived in Italy as well, having already taken over much of the globe: 88 nests have been identified in Sicily, near Syracuse, and this is the first official sighting for Europe. The alert comes from the studio published in the journal Current Biology and is led by the Spanish Institute of Evolutionary Biology, in which the University of Parma and the University of Catania have also collaborated. This species is also known as warrior ants Solenopsis invicta It could spread very quickly, in Italy as in the rest of the continent, with major impacts on ecosystems, agriculture and human health.
“The main types of damage to humans are related to electrical equipment, communications equipment and agriculture,” Mattia Menchitti of Epi, who led the study, told Italian news agency ANSA. This type of ant “also has an important impact on natural ecosystems: it is in fact a generalist predator, and in the places where it settles, it causes a decline in the diversity of invertebrates and small vertebrates, and moreover – adds the Italian researcher – thanks to the poison that its sting contains and the colonies that it can destroy.” “Ranging in the hundreds of thousands of individuals, it can affect even small, weak or sick animals.”
The fire ant owes its nickname to its most famous characteristic: its bites are extremely painful and can cause serious allergic reactions. Although its native home is South America, S. invicta spreads rapidly, moving with the wind and with the help of humans, who have contributed through sea trade and transport of plant products: in this way the ant was able to colonize Australia, China and the Pacific Ocean. The Caribbean, Mexico and the United States in less than a century, while Europe managed to avoid it for longer than expected.
After seeing some photos taken in Sicily, the researchers went there to confirm the identity of the ants: they found 88 nests in an area of 4.7 hectares, each inhabited by several thousand worker ants. Speaking with residents of the area, the study authors also discovered that the first traumatic stings date back to at least 2019, so the true extent of the invaded area is probably greater. Researchers were unable to determine exactly how S. invicta arrived in Italy, but after analyzing its DNA, they concluded that this particular group likely came from the United States or China.
The study indicates that approximately 7% of the European continent and 50% of European cities have suitable conditions for the spread of fire ants. “According to the results of our ecological model – says Menchitti – large coastal cities are among the most suitable locations to host S. invicta, in Italy as in the rest of Europe. This is especially worrying since these cities are nerve centers of commerce and are highly interconnected with each other.” “And thus it can allow ants to spread faster. Moreover, according to the projections we made, with climate change, the areas suitable for their settlement will increase significantly.”
The first steps to try to stop the invasion are already underway. “The eradication and monitoring of this species in the Sicilian region are being planned – says Menchitti – and the research team has offered its availability in the role of scientific advisor. The participation of citizens in reporting the possible presence of S invicta could be a valuable assistance solution to cover a larger area, both through channels official or Citizen Science platforms.”
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