Distribution and impact of the Argentine ant, Linepithema humile (Mayr), in South Africa
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Invasion by the notorious tramp species, the Argentine ant (Linepithema humile Mayr) (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) has caused major concern around the globe, owing to its displacement of native ant species and other invertebrates where it invades. This species was first recorded in South Africa in 1901 in Stellenbosch, Western Cape Province (WCP), and has now become a significant pest in most urban and agricultural areas in the country. The Argentine ant has received relatively little attention in South Africa compared to other countries (e.g. California, North America). To date the extent of invasion by this species countrywide, as well as its impact on the local ant fauna inside protected areas, has not been quantified. In this study, the impact of the Argentine ant on native ant fauna inside three protected areas in the WCP (Helderberg Nature Reserve (HNR), Jonkershoek Nature Reserve (JNR) and Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve KBR)) was assessed. Species richness and diversity were compared between invaded and uninvaded bait stations at each protected area. Several native ant species were found to be displaced by the Argentine ant from all three protected areas, although three species: Meranoplus peringueyi, Monomorium sp. 8 and Tetramorium quadrispinosum, were found coexisting with it. Invaded bait stations had significantly lower ant species richness and species turnover than uninvaded bait stations. Uninvaded bait stations contained eight times more native ant species than invaded bait stations. Thus, the invasion of protected areas by the Argentine ant has severe negative consequences for the species richness and assemblage structure of native ants, leading to the biotic homogenization of these local ant communities. The distribution range of the Argentine ant inside the three protected areas (HNR, JNR, KBR), as well as microhabitat preferences that may facilitate the spread of this species inside these reserves, was also assessed. Helderberg Nature Reserve was the most invaded protected area, with the highest level of the Argentine ant occupancy, while JNR and KBR had lower occupancy levels. At all the three protected areas, this species was dominant at lower altitudinal areas, and also showed a clear preference for areas with high anthropogenic disturbances, i.e. around buildings and on lawns (picnic areas). In this study, there was no evidence that moisture availability facilitates the distribution and spread of the Argentine ant inside these reserves. Finally, a combination of published literature records, museum records and records collected in the current study was used to quantify the current distributional extent of the Argentine ant throughout urban South Africa. This is the first study quantifying the distribution and extent of invasion by the Argentine ant throughout the country. The Argentine ant was found in six of the nine South African Provinces, and its extent of occurrence includes approximately half of the country’s land surface area. Discontinuities in the distribution of the Argentine ant across the country revealed that range expansion of the Argentine ant in South Africa is occurring predominantly via human-mediated jump dispersal, rather than naturally via nest diffusion. This study clearly demonstrated that the Argentine ant is well established across South Africa as well as inside protected areas. The Argentine ant invasion was influenced by the presence of human modified landscapes (i.e. buildings) both at low and high altitude, and this was associated with higher rates of native ant species displacement at these areas. Therefore, limiting the development of recreational areas, such as buildings and picnic sites inside protected areas will result in the lower rate of spread of the Argentine ant. This will in turn lower the extent of displacement of native ant species.