Know Your Ants

Jan 12, 2009


Know your ants.

If you want to identify red imported fire ants and other invasive ants found in the Pacific Island region, a newly launched Web site by an entomology graduate student at the University of California, Davis, will help you do just that.

Eli Sarnat created the interactive ant key to assist users in identifying invasive ant species commonly encountered in the Pacific Island region. The ant key includes 15 species recorded in California. These California ants include the common Argentine ant (the one you see marching up and down your kitchen), the red imported fire ant and the white-footed ant.

“This is one of the most clearly organized and informative sites I've ever seen,” said Lynn Kimsey, professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology. “It should be an invaluable resource for anyone needing information about pest ants in the Pacific Basin and elsewhere.”

Invasive ants threaten the native biodiversity, food security and quality of life, said Sarnat, who is researching the systematics, biogeography and conservation of ants in Fiji for his doctoral dissertation. He studies with major professor Phil Ward.

The ant key empowers professionals and non-professionals alike to identify the ants they encounter.

Sarnat compiled the guide using Lucid3 software. It covers four subfamilies, 20 genera and 44 species and includes:

  • An overview of the species
  • Diagnostic chart illustrating a unique combination of identification characters
  • Comparison chart illustrating differences among species of similar appearance
  • Video clip of the species behavior at food baits Image gallery that includes original specimen images and live images
  • Nomenclature section detailing the taxonomic history of the species
  • Links and references section for additional literature and online resources

The project was funded primarily by a cooperative agreement between UC Davis and the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Plant Health Science and Technology.

Sarnat became interested in invasive ants while studying at UC Berkeley. He managed the field operations for the National Science Foundation-funded Fiji Terrestrial Arthropod Survey for a year before returning to his graduate studies at UC Davis. “My experience with the arthropod survey,” he said, “prompted me to switch my thesis To raise awareness about invasive ants in the country, Sarnat conducted a series of workshops in Fiji sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society in collaboration with the Secretariat of the Pacific Community.  

The Fiji islands are a group of volcanic islands in the South Pacific, southwest of Honolulu and north of New Zealand .

“Although the workshop participants all acknowledged the danger that ants like Solenopsis invicta (red imported fire ant) and Wasmannia auropunctata (little fire ant) posed to the environments, economies and public health of Fiji,” he said, “it was clear that none of the local entomologists or quarantine officers had the taxonomic expertise to recognize the species at ports of entry.”

With funding from New Zealand 's Ministry of Forests and Agriculture, Sarnat and two other ant specialists facilitated a workshop to train quarantine officers and entomologists from 13 Pacific Island countries and territories in invasive ant taxonomy.

“I was contracted to develop an interactive identification guide that allowed non-specialists to accurately identify the most common and dangerous invasive ants,” Sarnat said.

The instructors provided each participant with a microscope, laptop and a CD of the new identification guide at the five-day workshop, held at the University of the Pacific in Suva, Fiji.

“The workshop was a great success,” he said. “The participants felt newly empowered to prevent invasive ant incursions on their islands.”

Sarnat presented the first edition of the Pacific Invasive Ant key (PIAkey) at the 1st Pacific Invasive Ant conference in Honolulu in 2007. Interest expressed by the USDA’s Center for Plant Health Science and Technology, part of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Plant Protection and Quarantine (APHIS-PPQ), led to the production of the second edition, completed in 15 months.

Sarnat said the second edition represents a significant improvement over the first edition. It features fact sheets for each species, numerous specimen images and live images, videos of the ants feeding at baits, an illustrated glossary of technical terms, and an illustrated Lucid key to 44 species of invasive ants.

“Taxonomy can be a difficult field to learn because it has traditionally been taught as a body of knowledge passed down from mentors to students or through scattered and often old literature,” he said. “One must also examine specimens that exist only in a few museums across the world.”

The most exiting aspect of PIAkey, Sarnat said, is that it empowers non-specialists—those not trained by a mentor, or with no access to old literature or far-off museum collections--to use the recent technologies of digital images, the Internet, and an interactive identification software like Lucid to make accurate identifications themselves.

Last year the Bohart Museum of Entomology published a color poster of Sarnat’s auto-montages of the heads of 12 common invasive ants. The poster, “Pacific Invasive Ants,” is available at the Bohart Museum , located at 1124 Academic Surge on the UC Davis campus or online.

Further information on Sarnat’s work is on his  Web site.


By Kathy Keatley Garvey
Author - Communications specialist

Attached Images:

HEAD OF ARGENTINE ANT--This automontage of an Argentine ant is the work of Eli Sarnat at the University of California, Davis. Sarnat has just launched an interactive ant key to help professionals and non-professionals identify ants. See Web site at

Argentine Ant

ANT SPECIALIST--Eli Sarnat, a graduate student in the Phil Ward lab at the University of California, Davis, has just launched an interactive Web site on invasive ants of the Pacific region. The key includes 15 species recorded in California. See Web site at by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Eli Sarnat