A species of ant in the forests of Ethiopia looks poised to become a globally invasive species, capable of spreading around the world, disrupting ecosystems and becoming a pest for humans.

The species Lepisiota canescens is showing signs it forms “supercolonies,” which are colonies comprised of more than one nest. These supercolonies allow a single species of ant to spread out over a large territory, a key step to becoming an invasive species.

This concerns a group of researchers from various institutions in American and Ethiopia, who published a study on the ants this week in the journal Insectes Sociaux. They observed that one similar species of ant in the same genus (Lepisiota) have invaded South Africa’s Kruger National Park, and another temporarily shut down Australia’s Darwin Port after the ants were discovered among cargo.

“The species we found in Ethiopia may have a high potential of becoming a globally invasive species,” said lead author D. Magdalena Sorger, a post-doctoral researcher with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, in a press release. “Invasive species often travel with humans, so as tourism and global commerce to this region of Ethiopia continues to increase, so will the likelihood that the ants could hitch a ride, possibly in plant material or even in the luggage of tourists. All it takes is one pregnant queen. That’s how fire ants started!”

The ant colonies are in the forests that surround Orthodox Christian churches in Ethiopia, which are some of the last natural forests in the country. Ethiopian Christians have long surrounded their churches with woodland. Some of these forests are more than a thousand years old, and are unusually rich areas of biodiversity in areas otherwise barren or deforested for agriculture.

The researchers say these ants have built the largest supercolonies ever observed among an ant species in its native habitat — the largest supercolony they found spanned 24 miles. That, along with the ants’ diet and nesting habits suggest they have the characteristics of an invasive species.

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