The transport of insects to regions where they are not native is a serious problem in today’s world. Not surprisingly, this problem has existed ever since mankind took to the seas. When Columbus, and early European settlers in America first traveled across the Atlantic, they probably did not anticipate upsetting the balance of the world’s ecosystems, but this is exactly what has occurred as a result of maritime travel. Although customs officials and other authorities do their best to prevent the accidental transport of insects into non-native regions today, the fact is that invasive insects are increasing. Fire ants happen to be one of the earliest known insects to be transported to regions all over the globe via maritime travel. There may have been numerous other insect species that had been transported to non-native regions before fire ants, but fire ants were the first insect species to establish a global habitat as a result of careless sea travel. Many insects likely die as a result of being ill suited to new environments, but the durable fire ant has endured in just about every non-native habitat where they have been introduced.
During the sixteenth century, Spanish ships accidentally transported fire ants from the Americas to other regions across the sea. Fire ants had always been native to the Americas, but thanks to early colonial travel, fire ants have established habitats in every location that is either tropical or subtropical. The early transport of fire ants allowed people from all over the world to experience their extremely painful bites for themselves. Researchers recently published a study in the Journal of Molecular Entomology that describes how fire ants established their invasive habitat hundreds of years ago.
The manner in which fire ants spread in the sixteenth century will amaze you, as early maritime travelers seemed to be trying to spread as many insects across the globe as they could. Back then, when a ship would dock at a port, the crew would fill the ship’s ballast with soil only to later transfer and dump the soil at another port in a foreign country. Once the soil was dumped, its weight would be replaced with cargo. Of course, early sea travelers were simply ignorant of the consequences of transporting soil to different parts of the world. However, if they had known that they were moving enormous amounts of insects within the soil, they may not have stopped, as the negative environmental consequences of this insect transport were not known to most people at the time.
Do you think that enough precautions are taken today to prevent the global spread of insects by means of maritime travel?