What kinds of ants show between-colony aggression? (Stephanie, Oklahoma, USA)

Dear AntAsk,

I'm designing a behavioral experiment about nest-mate recognition in ants that I hope to publish in an educational journal. When I do the experiment with my class here in Oklahoma, I've been using harvester ants of the species Pogonomyrmex barbatus, but I understand this ant doesn't occur everywhere, and I'd like to offer educators from other areas suggestions for what kinds of ants might work.


Dear Stephanie,

That sounds like a really fun, educational activity! Pogonomyrmex in general are great to use, but here are some other genera that might be useful to people living outside of your region:

Formica spp. (wood ants) These ants are widespread in North America and Eurasia, and are often the most numerous large ants in boreal forests. They build mounds of vegetation (sometimes to 1m high or more) around their nest entrances.

Tetramorium caespitum (pavement ants). The most commonly seen ants on sidewalks in urban North America and Northern Europe. They often have nests with multiple entrances, so get ready to see some non-aggressive behavior, too. Ants truly from a different colony, however, will be violently rejected, and closely-spaced colonies of this species are frequently seen having all-out territorial wars (see previous post here ).

Aphaenogaster sp. and Messor sp. Also referred to has harvester ants, these ants have very similar habits and life-histories to Pogonomyrmex; all three genera co-occur, and are most common from southern California to west Texas.

The majority of ant species show some degree of internidal (between-nest) aggression, so most ants are worth a shot, with the following exceptions: most invasive ants. The Red Imported Fire Ant, Solenopsis invicta, is common and obvious from Texas to Florida. These will often not show aggression to other members of its species. The Argentine Ant, Linepithema humile, is very common in South and Central California; these ants rarely show aggression towards each other in their introduced range (there is actually a "mega-colony" that occurs in Japan, California, and the Mediterranean region in Europe; you can read more here ). Both ant species are originally from temperate South America, where they actually do often show internidal aggression. Many invasive ant species form polydomous and polygynous (multi-nest and multi-queen) colonies and show little internidal aggression in their introduced range, but have more "normal" nest structure, queen number, and levels of internidal aggression in their home ranges.

I did not really address how to identify these ant genera in this blog post, other than to direct you to some pictures. For an entry-level guide to identifying many of the relevant genera discussed above, please see this key, developed for the Bay Area Ant Survey.

For more in-depth information on ant identification, I would highly recommend checking out "The Ants of North America" by Brian Fisher and Stefan Cover.

Hope this helps!
Jesse Czekanski-Moir & the AntAsk Team

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