Wild Thing: Of Crazy Ants, Kudzu, and West Nile Virus
Wild Thing is an occasional series where JHU Press authors write about the flora and fauna of the natural world—from the rarest flower to the most magnificent beast.
guest post by Russell F. Reidinger, Jr.
In retrospect, most homeowners have who experienced raccoon invasions would probably agree that preventing access to their homes would have been preferable to removing the raccoons. Regardless, raccoons in attics are mental images that often come to mind when thinking of wildlife damage. So are images of squirrels in attics or skunks under porches or deer jumping in front of cars.
But images of some animals—the crazy ant, for example—do not typically pop up when we think of wildlife damage. Yet crazy ants cause extensive damage to island ecosystems. Called “crazy” because of their erratic movement, the ants can form colonies in tree canopies and tolerate multiple queens. Supercolonies with 300 queens have been discovered. The ants are voracious omnivores that eat grains, seeds, and detritus. They “farm” scale insects and aphids. So, where is the problem? The ants spray red land crabs with lethal amounts of formic acid, then eat the protein-laden crab carcasses. Crazy ants have killed 15 to 20 million crabs since the late 1980s on Christmas Island alone. The absence of the crab, formerly a keystone species for the Islands, has caused dramatic changes in litter cover and species richness, along with a concomitant decline in some endemic species.
Hailing from the West Nile Province of Uganda, West Nile virus was first identified in 1937. It appeared in New York City in 1999. The disease, transmitted by mosquitoes, infects many vertebrate species, but most are asymptotic. The movement of the virus in the United States tracked closely that of some migratory birds. Species such as blue jays seem particularly sensitive and serve as indicators of the disease. While many people infected with the virus show no symptoms, a few will get meningitis or encephalitis. In the United States from 2009—2010, the Centers for Disease Control reported about 1,700 human cases, with 69 fatalities.
One can question whether problems such as these are part of wildlife damage management. Are the species domesticated or wild? Do they affront humans or their interests? The answers can be complex. In fact, it is the principles and concepts underlying answers to broad questions such as these that are part of the real substance of Wildlife Damage Management. If you are looking for a step-by-step manual on how to remove raccoons from an attic, this book is not for you. If, however, you want to understand the biological, ecological, and human dimensional concepts underlying wildlife damage management as it is currently practiced (and, we believe, how it will be practiced into the foreseeable future), this is the book for you. We review characteristics of damaging plant and animal species in North America and around the globe; summarize physical, pesticidal and biological control methods; and emphasize traditional vertebrate pests with abundant examples. But we take the position that today’s wildlife damage management also includes invasive plants and animals and wildlife diseases and zoonoses. And we include some speculation on how wildlife damage started anyway, beginning with Australopithecus afarensis, a preman who served more as prey than predator. I encourage you read our book.