AUSTIN (KXAN) — Scientists at the University of Texas Austin may have found a way to stop an invasive ant species.

UT said tawny crazy ants have been known to swarm breaker boxes on homes, air conditioning units, sewage pumps and other electrical devices in some parts of the southeastern U.S. They’re originally from South America but have been spreading for the past two decades.

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Researchers at the university have found a fungal pathogen could be the key to stopping them. Spores from the pathogen, microsporidian, fill the abdomens of the crazy ants, taking over the insect’s fat cells to transform them into spore factories, according to UT Austin.

Scientists with Brackenridge Field Laboratory first observed this happening in crazy ants collected from Florida eight years ago. The pathogen was then found in crazy ants at sites across Texas.

A team observed 15 populations in Texas for eight years and found every population stricken by the pathogen declined, and 62% of them disappeared altogether. Scientists think the colonies could have collapsed because the pathogen cuts the lifespan of worker ants short, making it hard for a group to survive through winter, UT Austin said.

This specific pathogen only affects crazy ants in this way. Native ants and other arthropods seemed to be unharmed, according to UT, so researchers thought it was the perfect solution to the crazy ants problem.

Edward LeBrun, a research scientist with the Texas Invasive Species Research Program at The University of Texas at Austin’s Brackenridge Field Laboratory, collects tawny crazy ants at a field site in Central Texas. (Courtesy: Thomas Swafford/University of Texas at Austin)
Edward LeBrun, a research scientist with the Texas Invasive Species Research Program at UT Austin’s Brackenridge Field Laboratory, collects tawny crazy ants (Courtesy: Thomas Swafford/University of Texas at Austin)

The Brackenridge Field Laboratory team tested out their theory in 2016 by deploying the pathogen at Estero Llano Grande State Park, which is located in Weslaco, Texas. UT said the park was plagued by crazy ants, and it was losing wildlife like scorpions, snakes, lizards, rabbits and birds to the insects.

For the test, the team used crazy ants from other sites that already had microsporidian, and put them near the nesting sites of crazy ants in the park. UT said the team then used hot dogs to attract the local ants and merge the two groups.

In the first year of the experiment, UT said the pathogen spread to the entire crazy ant population in Estero. Within two years, the population numbers took a nosedive. Today, crazy ants are “nonexistent” in the park, and native species are bouncing back.

Researchers have also depleted a second crazy ant community in an area of Austin. They plan to test this method more this spring at other Texas sites, researchers said.

You can find out more about the team’s research online.