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Courtesy of Eli Sarnat

Tetramorium lanuginosum, an ant that is often found across the Pacific and other tropical regions and is not known to cause much damage to ecological or agricultural systems.

Fighting the invaders of cross-border commerce

by Brooke Workneh
Nov 28, 2012

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Recognizing the invaders can be half the battle.

A new website known as Antkey includes images and video clips to help users identify more than 100 invasive ant species commonly transported to the United States during cross-border commerce, said Andrew Suarez, Associate Professor of Entomology and Animal Biology at the University of Illinois.


Researchers at the university have developed the new interactive website.


The program will essentially help non-specialists in quarantine and border facilities more quickly identify in this case whether an ant species is benign or a threat to our agricultural economy, Suarez explained.


The Red Imported Fire ant, found in places such as Texas and Florida "have a really horrible sting and can be quite a human health hazard in addition to being an agricultural pest,” Suarez said. The Raspberry Crazy Ant is another iinsect that has continued to cause problems in Texas. It is known to get into electrical boxes and cause electrical equipment to fail. "People are really concerned that it will continue to get moved around."


Cross-border commerce can lead to “severe economic, agricultural and ecological damage,” Suarez added. By identifying these species it will help people better understand what is being moved around and from where they originated.


Antkey was created by both Suarez and postdoctoral research associate Eli Sarnat. The two worked with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Identification Technology Program to develop “an ant based identification tool,” Suarez said.


“It was specifically designed for the personnel at the USDA who are responsible for identifying ants that are intercepted at U.S. ports of entry,” Sarnat added. The project allows both experts and non-experts to have access to a web-based resource no matter where they are, Suarez said.

The system itself provides a more efficient means of searching for information through lucid identification software. The traditional method only allows “one starting point and only a single correct path you can take to get to the proper identification,” said Sarnat. “Lucid is a bit of a breakthrough because it allows you to start at multiple points in [the] identification process.”

If you already know certain information like the genus, the species sub-family, or where it’s collected, lucid key will allow you to skip questions and move on to another section in the identification process, Sarnat said.

“The Antkey project pushes forward the interactivity of entomology,” Sarnat said. It makes obscure knowledge accessible to a much broader audience, “it’s almost like democratizing the science of entomology.”