Ecologically heterogeneous populations of the invasive ant Wasmannia auropunctata within its native and introduced ranges.
The biology of most invasive species in their native geographical areas remains largely unknown. Such studies are, however, crucial in shedding light on the ecological and evolutionary processes underlying biological invasions. The present study focuses on the little fire ant Wasmannia auropunctata, a species native to Central and South America that has been widely introduced and which has become invasive throughout the tropics. We characterise and compare several ecological traits of native populations in French Guiana with those in one of its introduced ranges, New Caledonia. We found ecologically heterogeneous populations of W. auropunctata coexisting in the species' native geographical area. First, we found populations restricted to naturally perturbed areas (particularly floodplains) within the primary forest, and absent from the surrounding forest areas. These populations were characterised by low nest and worker densities. Second, we found dominant populations in recent anthropogenic areas (e.g. secondary forest or forest edge along road) characterised by high nest and worker densities, and associated with low ant species richness. The local dominance of W. auropunctata in such areas can be due to the displacement of other species (cause) or the filling-up of empty habitats unsuitable to other ants (effect). With respect to their demographic features and ant species richness, the populations of native anthropogenic habitats were to a large extent similar to the invasive populations introduced into remote areas. The results point to the need for greater research efforts to better understand the ecological and demographic features of invasive species within their native ranges.