Red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) aggression influences the behavior of three hard tick species.
Few studies have documented the indirect effects of predators on tick behavior. We conducted behavioral assays in the laboratory to quantify the effects of a highly abundant predator, the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta), on three species of ticks endemic to the southern USA: the lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum), the Gulf Coast tick (A. maculatum), and the Cayenne tick (A. mixtum). We documented ant aggression toward ticks (biting, carrying, and stinging) and determined the effects of ants on tick activity. Ticks were significantly less active in the presence of fire ants, and tick activity was negatively associated with ant aggression, but in many cases the effects of fire ants on ticks varied by tick species, stage, and engorgement status. For example, fire ants took half as long (∼62 s) to become aggressive toward unfed A. americanum adults compared with unfed A. maculatum, and only ∼8 s to become aggressive toward engorged A. maculatum nymphs. Correspondingly, the activity of unfed A. americanum adults and engorged A. maculatum nymphs was reduced by 67 and 93%, respectively, in the presence of fire ants. This reduction in tick activity translated to less questing by unfed ticks and less time spent walking by engorged nymphs. Our results suggest that fire ants may have important non-consumptive effects on ticks and demonstrate the importance of measuring the indirect effects of predators on tick behavior.