Some of Georgia's wildlife are feeling the sometimes deadly sting of fire ants. Entomologists and wildlife biologists have found evidence that fire ants are hurting loggerhead turtles, brown pelicans, quail and alligators.
Attacking Turtle Eggs and Hatchlings
"A few years ago, we began seeing fire ants in the nests of adult loggerhead sea turtles during hatching time," said Brad Winn, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist. He works with the Nongame Wildlife and Natural Heritage Section in Brunswick, Ga.
State wildlife biologists check turtle nests after hatching to learn how many turtles hatched and how many hatchlings didn't survive.
"We found fire ants and small holes in eggs that we believe were caused by ants chewing into the eggs," Winn said. "I've never seen these kinds of holes in any nests other than ones containing fire ants."
But fire ant damage goes farther than egg holes. "During and just after hatching, I have found young turtles that were killed in the shell by fire ants and others that were killed by fire ants after hatching," he said.
To evaluate the insect problem, the wildlife biologist called on Stan Diffie. He's an entomology research coordinator with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Diffie tracks the fire ant populations on the beaches of Sea Island and Jekyll Island. "It's not a major problem yet," Diffie said. "Even with the highest incidents, they don't appear to be hurting the sea turtle population."
Reducing Pelican and Quail Populations
On the other hand, the researchers believe fire ants are affecting brown pelican and bobwhite quail populations.
"Two years ago, a colony of brown pelicans off the coast of Georgia completely abandoned an area of their rookery right in the middle of the nesting season," Winn said. "This was a sure signal that something was wrong."
Winn found a large number of fire ants in the area and in the birds' nests. Wildlife biologists worried the fire ants might attack other ground-nesting coastal birds like black skimmers and gull-billed terns -- both on the state's rare bird listing.
To control the ants, Diffie treated the bird rookery with fire ant bait before the spring nesting period.
"The area the birds abandoned was recolonized that spring," Diffie said. "We haven't seen any evidence of abandonment since."
The researchers will check the rookery this fall to determine the effectiveness of the treatments and the correlation between fire ant populations and the pelicans' hatching success.
Quail and Fire Ants Competing for Food
On the Mossy Dell Quail Plantation in Leesburg, Ga., Diffie has seen signs that fire ants are reducing the quail population in Georgia.
Both ants and chicks feed on insects. If the fire ants outcompete the chicks, the quail don't have enough to eat. Diffie is working with a local plantation owner to test his fire ant theory.
Based on Texas research, Diffie knows fire ants can kill quail eggs and hatchlings in a controlled environment. Now he plans to find out how much damage they can do in the quail's natural habitat. This research is being conducted on UGA's Wolf Creek Research Farm in Turner County, Ga.
Attacking Baby 'Gators' Too
Back on the coast, Winn has found evidence that fire ants are attacking yet another victim -- the alligator.
"Three or four times, I've seen entire alligator nesting mounds become one big fire ant colony," he said. "The hatching eggs were killed. And the female adults, who normally guard the eggs and assist in the hatching process, had abandoned the nests."
Research into these wildlife and fire ant reports has just begun. So concrete data to support Winn's findings isn't available.
"I have no doubt that fire ants are killing hatching alligators," Winn said. "And lots of things can kill hatchling turtles. But I've seen too much evidence of fire ants not to believe they're one of the culprits."
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)