The red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, in early-successional coastal plain forests: tests of distribution and interaction strength
The red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, is an abundant and aggressive component of early-successional communities in the southeastern United States. After disturbance, it rapidly invades new habitats, and once there, it has strong competitive and predatory effects on the existing arthropod community. In upland coastal plain pine forests at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, I conducted two studies of fire ant ecology. In my first study (chapter 1), I investigated the way in which fire ants colonize early-successional road and powerline cuts through forests, and I tested whether some of these linear habitats provided better fire ant habitat than others. I found that fire ant mound density (#/ha) was similar in narrow dirt roads and in wider roads with the same intermediate level of mowing disturbance, and that density was lower in wide powerline cuts where the vegetation is only removed every five years. Furthermore, mound density was greatest near the edges of cleared roads and powerline cuts and was also greater on the northern sides of roads and powerline cuts where there was less shading from the adjacent forest. Results from this study suggest that allowing increased shading from adjacent forest vegetation, especially along northern roadside edges, would limit the suitability of road and powerline cuts as fire ant habitat, thereby slowing invasion. In my second study (chapter 2), I examined the impact of fire ants on arthropod and plant species in early-successional forest gaps. In a tritrophic system, I tested whether the top-down effect of insect herbivore consumption by fire ants was strong enough to cascade through two trophic levels and improve plant growth and fitness. I compared this potential effect to that of other arthropod predators in the community. I found that fire ants controlled the level of tissue damage to plant leaves by herbivores, but that the damage was not severe enough to influence plant growth or fitness. Fire ants had stronger negative interactions with insect herbivores than other predators in the community, and for this reason, fire ants can be considered keystone predators. This project provides further evidence that fire ants successfully invade even small patches of early-successional habitat that exist within larger matrices of uninhabitable, late-successional forest, and that once there, they have a dramatic effect on the arthropod community. Restricting the amount of early-successional habitat within southeastern forests, either as permanent road and powerline cuts or as temporary gaps, would limit the potential for strong and detrimental effects by the invasive fire ant.