Invasive African big-headed ants, Pheidole megacephala, on coral cays of the southern Great Barrier Reef: distribution and impacts on other ants.
Infestation of islands by exotic ants is widespread and increasing due to human activities throughout the world. Exotic ants, particularly the invasive African big-headed ant, Pheidole megacephala (Fabricius), are of great conservation concern for coral cays at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Little is known, however, about the distribution and ecological impacts of invasive ants in this insular system. We surveyed the ants of 14 vegetated coral cays recording a total of 24 ant species, including at least nine exotics. Pheidole megacephala was by far the most abundant and widespread species, occurring on 11 of 14 islands, often in very large numbers. The inter-island distribution of P. megacephala was best explained by human activities, with frequently visited, and to a lesser degree disturbed islands, more likely to be infested. On large islands (≥10 ha) P. megacephala exhibited distinct habitat preferences, occurring in significantly lower abundances within heavily-shaded Pisonia grandis forest in the centre of islands, compared to more open, fringing woodland or shrubland. On smaller islands (<10 ha) with less extensive Pisonia stands, P. megacephala penetrated throughout the forest where its abundance was similar to that in open woodland. Despite considerable differences in biotic (floristic composition) and abiotic factors (e.g. island size) as well as the spatial configuration among islands, the severity of infestation by P. megacephala best explained variation in species richness, abundance and assemblage composition of other ants. We suggest a number of strategies to manage P. megacephala infestations on these islands.