By: Emily Hur
Though ants usually live on the ground, one species in New York City can climb several stories high. Nicknamed the ManhattAnt, the pest first appeared a decade ago but has only recently started invading high rise apartments.
Scientists first spotted the ManhattAnt, or Lasius emarginatus, in 2011. It is an invasive species originally from Europe, most likely brought to America by boat.
An invasive species is any organism that is not native to the area and usually harms the ecosystem. They frequently travel via ship or through exotic pet trading. Small animals can easily hide on boats and pet owners tend to release their pets into the wild. People could also bring in larger species to act as pest control. Once introduced to the new environment, the species quickly adapt and start to thrive.
Ants are perfect invaders. They can eat a variety of foods, reproduce rapidly, and adapt easily. Their small size also makes it difficult to distinguish them from native species. The ManhattAnt has a dark brown head and abdomen and a reddish-brown thorax. At first glance, it looks almost identical to other ants in New York.
Over the last few months, New Yorkers have found that the ManhattAnt tends to spontaneously appear in apartments, sometimes hundreds of feet high. On Reddit, a Brooklyn resident wrote, “woke up this morning to ants crawling around my living room. I live on the 3rd floor and have never had problems with any insects.” Another user replied, “I worked in an apartment building, and the 25th floor had ants in midtown.”
When New Yorkers discover the ant in their homes, it is not because they left some crumbs out. According to Dr. Rob Dunn, a professor in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University, whose team initially discovered the ManhattAnt in New York, the ants are looking for water and do not plan to stay.
Why are they traveling so high? Samantha Kennett, a graduate student at Kennesaw State University in Dr. Clint Penick’s social insects lab, said that it likes to forage in trees. It tends to climbs a lot and has been found in second story buildings in Europe.
Kennett is currently studying the critters. “My research focuses on understanding how this ant, who is now one of the most common ants in New York City, has been able to be so successful, surviving in highly urban habitats,” Kennett said. “They are everywhere.” She found ManhattAnts in trees at Broadway, in midtown, and in Times Square.
Kennett and her team are primarily focusing on the ant’s diet. “This is one of the things that I’m trying to figure out. When ants are living in really urban habitats, they tend to eat a lot of human foods and they’re able to shift their diets towards more human foods. But this ant, even though it’s living in the most urban habitat, does not appear to be consuming human foods.”
Along with ants, research reveals that predators living close to humans also eat human food. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered that several species of these carnivores get half of their food from human sources. Animals adapt when introduced to a new environment and different resources, like racoons eating from a dumpster. Yet, the ManhattAnt continues to avoid human foods, perplexing scientists. By studying the ant, Kennett’s research could help scientists understand the habits of insects as well as large predators.
Kennett created an online project for people to report any sightings of the insect, called Project ManhattAnt. Researchers hope to use the data to follow the species as it spreads. They have received sightings as far as New Jersey and Long Island.