Mellow on the Mediterranean

April 27, 2002

It's no Club Med, but this colony of Argentinean ex-pats on the Mediterranean coast is certainly living la vida loca. They arrived about 1920, and today they number in the billions. That's right, billions with a B. All living and working in harmony, across 6,000 miles from the Italian Riviera to the Cote D'Azure, from the Costa del Sol to the Montanhas on Portugal's northeast coast.

Not what you'd expect from members of the newly discovered supercolony of Argentine ants on the European coast, given their disposition back home.

At least that's what a trio of entomologists tells us in the recent issue of Proceedings, the magazine of the National Academy of Sciences. In their native Argentina, these ants are aggressive critters, as ferocious as any swarm of killer bees. If a neighboring ant mistakenly wanders into the nest next door, watch out! He won't return home in one piece. Or he might find himself zapped by a toxic chemical - these Argentines are a tempestuous lot.

Yet on the Mediterranean, theirs is a virtual anthill of brotherly love. Why go to war when you can go to the beach?

They are a more domestic bunch as well, preferring to procreate, search for food and raise kin by the thousands. Though they hail from different nests ruled by different queens, the Argentine ants all make nice.

And the researchers, led by Laurent Keller from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, can't quite explain it. It may be that the European ants' ability to distinguish friend from foe has changed as they procreated over time. But they haven't totally lost the will to fight. If they encountered an ant from another supercolony on the coast of Spain or California, let's say, they'd be out for blood just the same.

And there's one other thing that hasn't changed, despite the Argentinean ants' more congenial behavior.

"They are bothersome," says Mr. Keller. "People don't like those ants. When you have billions and billions of ants, you can kill a few in your house but more and more will come."

But do they tango?

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