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A massive horde of computer-killing "crazy ants" are invading the southeastern US, killing other species as they go.

New research released today in the journal Biological Invasions warns the aliens have wiped out at least one other ant invader, the exotic fire ant, but are also targeting local ants with deadly precision. More worryingly, if you're a human, the tiny terrors also pose a threat to humanity due to their predilection for swarming into electrical machinery in huge numbers and destroying the circuitry.

The beasties earned the nickname crazy because they dart around erratically and quickly, rather than taking the calm, sedate paths favoured by other ants. They are also referred to as tawny crazy ants due to their natty colour scheme.

For fans of El Reg, the ants' unexplainable taste for all things tech is likely to be their most terrifying characteristic. Once they move into a house, they swarm everywhere, occupying every space they can in frightening numbers. Then, for reasons no one fully understands, they swarm into machines and chew away at the wires. Once an ant is electrocuted, it releases a signal calling other ants to help it, which can quickly result in a ball of dead ants inside a circuit, with thousands of ants cramming in and ruining the device.

They are known to have brought down sewage pumps, messed up computers and were even considered a threat to NASA's facilities at the Johnson Space Centre, in Houston.

The fire ant species - also an alien invader - isn't exactly popular itself, because it delivers a horrifically painful bite which is reputed to be as painful as a burn. But homeowners may find themselves yearning for the good old days of nasty, bitey fire ants if they find themselves invaded by their crazy cousins.

Ed LeBrun, a research associate with the Texas invasive species research programme at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory in the College of Natural Sciences, was the lead author of the study.

“When you talk to folks who live in the invaded areas, they tell you they want their fire ants back,” said LeBrun. “Fire ants are in many ways very polite. They live in your yard. They form mounds and stay there, and they only interact with you if you step on their mound.”

The crazy ants were first identified in 2002 by a pest controller in Houston, and have since spread out to 21 counties in Texas, 20 counties in Florida and have been seen in both southern Mississippi and southern Louisiana.

In 2012, the ants were formally identified as the species Nylanderia fulva, which is native to Argentina and north Brazil. In their native countries, natural predators keep them in check, but in the US there are no checks on their population growth, meaning they can achieve population densities 100 times greater than fire ants.

“They don’t sting like fire ants do, but aside from that they are much bigger pests,” LeBrun added. “There are videos on YouTube of people sweeping out dustpans full of these ants from their bathroom. You have to call pest control operators every three or four months just to keep the infestation under control. It’s very expensive.

“Perhaps the biggest deal is the displacement of the fire ant, which is the 300-pound gorilla in Texas ecosystems these days. The whole system has changed around fire ants. Things that can’t tolerate fire ants are gone. Many that can have flourished.

"New things have come in. Now we are going to go through and whack the fire ants and put something in its place that has a very different biology. There are going to be a lot of changes that come from that.”

On top of their general madness, crazy ants are also very difficult to kill. They don't appear to be affected by traditional insecticides and even if one colony is killed, another one from the area can quickly fill the space.

The crazy ants are the latest in a series of ant invasions from the south, stretching back to the arrival of the Argentine ant in the late 19th century. The ants are mostly carried through human activity, so experts suggest that travellers try to avoid carrying them inadvertently. Left to their own devices, the ants can only move at about 200 metres a year, but human activity means they move significantly more quickly.

Currently, the crazy ants prefer wet climes with mild winters. There's no word on whether they prefer Macs or PCs. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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