Red fire ants: scientists fear South American ant with pustule-causing sting could soon arrive in the UK
A new study found the aggressive and sometimes deadly stinging ant has become established in Europe, and climate change means London would be a perfect home for it
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New research has warned an invasive ant with stings capable of causing pustules and allergic reactions could soon set up shop in London - after it was found to have arrived in Europe.
Scientists have discovered 88 red fire ant nests spread over five hectares near the city of Syracuse on the Italian island of Sicily. While the South American natives have on occasion been found on imported produce in Spain, Holland, and Finland, this is the first time they have been confirmed to have established colonies on European soil.
The red fire ant is considered one of the most invasive species in the world - and the fifth most costly to combat - has had a massive impact on ecosystems, agriculture and human health around the world. In less than a century, the ant has spread across much of the United States, Mexico, the Caribbean, China, Taiwan and Australia - and has only been eradicated in New Zealand.
Its presence in the US has caused an estimated loss of more than £5 billion per year, while countries including Australia allocate millions to getting rid of it - with little success.
Its sting - described as "painful and irritating" - can cause pustules and allergic reactions, and may even trigger potentially deadly anaphylactic shock.
Ecological models developed as part of the study, published this week in science journal Current Biology, showed that aided by climate change and gradually warming temperatures, the invasive species could eventually establish itself across 7% of Europe.
Study leader Roger Vila of Spain's Institute of Evolutionary Biology, told SWNS that the population detected on Sicily probably originated in either China or the US, but how they got there was still a mystery.
The colonies were found in a suburban part of Syracuse, comprising an estuary and a natural park, he said. "It is an isolated area, so it is unlikely that it was the first point of entry to the island."
The team concluded that the entry point may have been a "transit" area with human activity - such as the commercial port.
"The results suggest that half of the urban areas in Europe would be climatically suitable for the establishment of this invasive species," Dr Vila continued. "Large cities such as Barcelona, Rome, London or Paris could be considerably affected by this invasive species, which can impact people's lifestyles due to its abundance and aggressiveness.
"Mediterranean coastal cities, highly connected by seaports, are the most suitable to [red fire ants], which could facilitate its spread," he added. "Considering climate change predictions, the scenario could become much worse, as the species could potentially expand to other parts of Europe."
The researchers said countries across this region needed to coordinate around early detection and rapid response, if they want to manage this new threat, "before it spreads uncontrollably".