When the development of the Eden Project first started in Cornwall I made a prediction: that their biomes would become overrun with ants. This wasn't completely without precedent, as the this is exactly what had happened with Biosphere 2 with the crazy ant Paratrechina longicornis.
I'm rarely this accurate, so I'm feeling quite smug!
My first encounter with ants from the Eden Project was having a specimen thrust in front of me by Cedric Collingwood a few years ago. His explanation was that it had been brought to him by a friend who couldn't initially remember where he collected it, but quickly remembered when it became apparent that it was a tropical species. Since I hadn't encountered the species before I quickly forgot what it was.
Last year one of my colleagues brought me a specimen that he had collected from the tropical biome at the Eden Project (I like colleagues that bring me ants). This was clearly a Technomyrmex, probably T. albipes, but I really struggled to come to a satisfactory conclusion on which species it was, so made a note to visit the Eden Project to collect some more and hopefully make identification easier. I did this last Friday.
Within seconds of entering the tropical biome I had found ants. The biome is absolutely full of them. In one place they were so dense that with one puff on my pooter I collected about 40 specimens! Unfortunately, I only found one species: Technomyrmex. With the number that I collected I should be able to make a better species identification.
I've since had a chat with the person who deals with pest control at the Eden Project, Michael Pytel. He stated that they are T. albipes (I'm still going to check) and that they had actually declined in numbers over the past two years! Apparently they were not the only ant to have been introduced and actually displaced P. longicornis, the species that caused problems at Biosphere 2. Other ants that still occur include subterranean Pheidole and Hypoponera, and a species of Solenopsis has been found there in the past. Work will continue to try to reduce the Technomyrmex population and redress the balance.
T. abipes is a major pest species in the tropics. It would be easy to consider Technomyrmex only as a pest in the tropical biome, but I think it deserves a little more respect. Even if it escapes the biome it is very unlikely that it would become established, as the climate in the UK is too cold. It is probably the only contact with such a prominent tropical invertebrate that visitors to the Eden Project are likely to come across and so could be a valuable educational tool. They could demonstrate the global problem with species occurring in the wrong environment and the damage that they can cause to ecosystems. I'd like to see the Eden Project recognise this opportunity, if they have not already.
(Apologies to anyone who actually expected this to be about tropical plants!)