Relative Effects of Disturbance on Red Imported Fire Ants and Native Ant Species in a Longleaf Pine Ecosystem

The degree to which changes in community composition mediate the probability of colonization and spread of non-native species is not well understood, especially in animal communities. High species richness may hinder the establishment of non-native species. Distinguishing between this scenario and cases in which non-native species become established in intact (lacking extensive anthropogenic soil disturbance) communities and subsequently diminish the abundance and richness of native species is challenging on the basis of observation alone. The red imported fire ant ( Solenopsis invicta), an invasive species that occurs throughout much of the southeastern United States, is such an example. Rather than competitively displacing native species, fire ants may become established only in disturbed areas in which native species richness and abundance are already reduced. We used insecticide to reduce the abundance of native ants and fire ants in four experimental plots. We then observed the reassembly and reestablishment of the ants in these plots for 1 year after treatment. The abundance of fire ants in treated plots did not differ from abundance in control plots 1 year after treatment. Likewise, the abundance of native ants increased to levels comparable to those in control plots after 1 year. Our findings suggest that factors other than large reductions in ant abundance and species density (number of species per unit area) may affect the establishment of fire ants and that the response of native ants and fire ants to disturbance can be comparable.