Jack jumper ant

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For Jerdon's jumping ant, see Harpegnathos saltator.
Jack jumper ant
Myrmecia.pilosula.jpg
Jack jumper worker
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Formicidae
Subfamily: Myrmeciinae
Genus: Myrmecia
Species: M. pilosula
Binomial name
Myrmecia pilosula
F. Smith, 1858
World map showing the range of the jack jumper ant in Australia
The jack jumper ant is endemic to most of Australia, including Tasmania.
Synonyms
  • Ponera ruginoda F. Smith, 1858[1]

The jack jumper ant (Myrmecia pilosula), commonly known as the hopper ant, jumper ant or jumping jack, is a species of venomous ant native to Australia. Most commonly found in Tasmania and southeast Australia, it is a member of the Myrmecia giant bull ant genus and was first described by Frederick Smith in 1858. The queen has a similar appearance to a worker, while males are easily noticeable due to their perceptibly smaller mandibles. They are large ants; workers and males are around the same size (12 to 14 millimetres (0.47 to 0.55 in) for workers and 11 to 12 millimetres (0.43 to 0.47 in) for males). The queen is even larger, at 14 to 16 millimetres (0.55 to 0.63 in) in length.

Mainly active during the day, jack jumpers live in nests surrounded by fine gravel and sandy soil which can be found in woodlands and urban areas. Jack jumpers prey on the small insects they bring back to their colony and sting, killing them with injected venom. Other ants and predatory invertebrates prey on the jack jumper ant, and the average jack jumper worker has a life expectancy of over one year. They possess the gamergates gene which allows workers to reproduce with drones, either with or without the queen present in the colony. The jack jumper ant is a part of the Myrmecia pilosula species complex; this ant and other members of the complex are known to have a single pair of chromosomes.

The jack jumper ant's sting generally only causes a mild local reaction; however, along with other ants in the Myrmecia genus, it is one of the very few ant species that can be dangerous to humans. The ant venom is particularly immunogenic for an insect venom. The venom causes about 90% of Australian ant allergies. In endemic areas, up to 3% of the human population have developed an allergy to the venom and about half of these allergic people can suffer anaphylactic reactions (increase of heart rate, falling blood pressure and many other symptoms), which on rare occasions can lead to death. From 1980 to 2000, there have been four deaths due to anaphylaxis to jack jumper stings, all of which were in Tasmania, but total deaths could be as high as six. Allergen immunotherapy (desensitisation) can be given to people who are prone to severe allergic reactions caused by jack jumper stings.

Taxonomy[edit]

Jack jumper worker dragging a pebble

The jack jumper ant was first described by British entomologist Frederick Smith in 1858 in his Catalogue of hymenopterous insects in the collection of the British Museum part VI, under the binomial name Myrmecia pilosula.[2][3] There, Smith described the specimens of a worker, queen and male jack jumper.[2] The type specimen is located in the British Museum.[4]

One synonym for the species has been published – Ponera ruginoda, also described by Smith in the same work.[3] but was later found to be a junior synonym of the jack jumper ant, after specimens of each were compared.[1][5][6] Among ants with occiptal carinae, the species was shown to be a monophyletic grouping, while other such Myrmecia ants were found to form a paraphyletic and basal assemblage[7] It has been shown that the jack jumper ant are not actually a single species, but instead show a range of chromosomes which suggests that it is a sibling species, known as the Myrmecia pilosula species complex.[5][8][9][10]

Their characteristic jumping motion when agitated or foraging inspires the common name "jack jumper", a behaviour also shared with other Myrmecia ants, such as the Myrmecia nigrocincta.[11] This is the most common name for the ant, along with "jumper ant",[12] "jumping jack"[12] and "black jumper".[4] It is also named after the jumping-jack firecracker.[13] The jack jumper is a member of the genus Myrmecia, apart of the subfamily Myrmeciinae. Most ancestors to the jack jumper ant, and Myrmecia as a whole, are only found in fossils, with the exception of Nothomyrmecia macrops; the only known living relative.[14][15]

Description[edit]

Jack jumper approaching a Myrmecia nigriceps queen. Note the size differences.

The jack jumper ant, like its relatives, has a powerful sting and large mandibles. Jack jumper ants can be black or blackish-red in colour, and they may have yellow or orange legs. The jack jumper is medium-sized in comparison to other Myrmecia species, where workers are typically 12 to 14 millimetres (0.47 to 0.55 in) long.[4] The ant's antennae, tibiae, tarsi and mandibles are also yellow or orange.[4] Pubescence (hair) on the jack jumper is greyish, short and erect, and is longer and more abundant on their gaster, rather long on their mandibles, absent on their antennae, and very short and suberect on their legs.[4] The pubescence on the male is grey and very long, and abundant throughout the ant's body, but it shortens on the legs.[4]

The queen has a very similar appearance to the workers, but its sculpture (body) is more irregular and coarser.[4] The queen is also the largest at 14 to 16 millimetres (0.55 to 0.63 in) in length.[4] Males are either smaller or around the same size as workers, at 11 to 12 millimetres (0.43 to 0.47 in).[4] Males are notable for having much smaller triangular mandibles than workers and queens. The mandibles on the male also contain a large tooth at the centre, between the apex and the base of the inner border.[4] Punctures (tiny dots) are noticeable on the head, where they are large and shallow, and the thorax and node are also irregularly punctuated.[4] The pubescence is white and yellowish on the gaster on the male.[4]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

Two jack jumper workers stand guard in front of the entrance to their nest

Jack jumper ants are abundant in most of Australia. They can be found as far from the center of population as Western Australia, where they have been observed in the sand hills around Albany, Mundaring, Denmark and Esperance.[1] Jack jumpers are rarely sighted in the northern regions of Western Australia.[4] In South Australia, they have been found at Mount Lofty, Normanville and Aldgate, and there are dense populations on the western seaboard of Kangaroo Island.[1] Jack jumpers are widespread in both Victoria and New South Wales, especially in the Snowy Mountains, Blue Mountains and coastal regions of these states.[16] The ants are also common in the Australian Capital Territory. In Queensland, they are present in the Bunya Mountains, Fletcher, Stanthorpe, Tamborine Mountain and Millmerran, and have been recorded as far north as Rockhampton.[4] The jack jumper ant also resides in Tasmania.

Jack jumper ants live in open habitats, such as pastures, gardens and lawns, preferring fine gravel and sandy soil.[17] They can be spotted around light bushland. Their preferred natural habitats include woodlands, open forests and rural areas, and are less common in urban areas. Populations of jack jumpers are usually very dense in higher mountain regions.[1][12][17] Their nests are usually mounds built from finely granular gravel or soil, 20 to 60 cm in diameter. They can also be found inconspicuously hidden underneath rocks.[11][18] The jack jumper's range in southern Australia, like other regional ant species, appears to be that of a relict ant. They often reside in damp areas, such as forests, that separate populations with broad stretches of arid land.[1] Jack jumpers have been found in dry sclerophyll forests, at elevations ranging from 121 – 1432 meters (396 - 4,698 ft), usually around 1,001 meters average (3,284 ft).[19]

In Tasmania, jack jumper ants mostly live in rural areas, and can be found in warm, dry, open eucalypt woodlands; the climate provides the ant with isolation and warmth. This environment also produces the ant's food; nectar and invertebrate prey, for example.[20] Jack jumpers are known to utilise the warmth of rocks and dry soil, and they decorate their nests with seeds, soil, charcoal, stones, sticks, and even small invertebrate corpses.[20] In suburban areas, they are associated with native vegetation, and use rockeries, cracks in concrete walls, dry dirt and grass to build nests.[20] One study found that suburbs with voluminous vegetation cover, such as Mount Nelson, Fern Tree and West Hobart, have jack jumper populations, while places like North Hobart and Battery Point, suburbs which are heavily urbanised, do not.[20]

Behaviour and ecology[edit]

Jack jumper worker on top of a dry flower

Jack jumpers are mainly diurnal, and will search for food during the day.[1][11] They hibernate when temperatures are low enough.[11] Jack jumper ants are highly territorial; fights among jack jumper ants are not uncommon, even between individuals of the same colony. They are known to be aggressive towards intruders.[11] The jack jumper ant has been observed on the inflorescences of Prasophyllum alpinum (mostly pollinated by wasps of the subfamily Ichneumonidae).[21] Although pollinia is often seen in the ants' jaws, they have a habit of cleaning their mandibles on the leaves and stems of nectar-rich plants before they move on. This prevents pollen exchange, but indicates that the jack jumper does pollinate.[21]

Prey[edit]

Jack jumper worker foraging. It appears poised for jumping.

As with many species of bull ants, jack jumper ants are usually solitary when they forage, but only workers perform this role. Jack jumper ants are omnivores[12] and scavengers. They sting their victims with a painful venom that is similar to that of wasps, bees, and fire ants.[22] Unlike the bee, the jack jumper ant is able to sting multiple times, rather than immediately dying.[23] Jack jumper ants are skilled hunters, partly due to their excellent vision; they can even kill and devour wasps and bees.[24] They also kill and eat other ants, such as carpenter ants (Camponotus)[24] and sap-sucking insects,[12] and feast on sweet floral secretions and other sugar solutions. Jack jumpers often hunt for spiders, small insects and small arthropods to feed their larvae, sometimes following them for a short distance.[11] Jack jumper ants alongside M. simillima have been given stored frozen houseflies (Musca domestica) and blowflies (Calliphoridae) as food under testing conditions.[25] The jack jumper has been observed to run and leap energetically at flies when they land, particularly on Acacia shrubs, plants or trees.[26]

Predators and parasites[edit]

The jack jumper and other Myrmecia species are preyed upon by other ants, as well as spiders, lizards, birds and mammals.[27] Predatory invertebrates such as assassin bugs and redback spiders prey on jack jumpers and other Myrmecia ants, and echidnas, particularly the Short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus Aculeatus) have been known to hunt them, eating their larvae and eggs.[27][28] The jack jumper ant is a host to parasites such as the gregarines (Gregarinasina).[29] Ants which host this parasite change colour from their typical black appearance to a brown colour. This was revealed when brown jack jumpers were dissected, and were shown to have gregarinasina spores, while black jack jumpers showed no spores.[29] If it is present in large numbers, the parasite interferes with the normal darkening of the cuticle while the ant is in its pupal stage.[29] The cuticle is known to soften due to the gregarine parasite.[30]

Life cycle[edit]

Based on observations of 6 jack jumper worker ants, the average life expectancy of the jack jumper is around 1.3 years, but workers were shown to live as little as 1.12 years or as long as 1.6, with the queen living for a much longer time than the workers.[31] This gives a life expectancy estimation of 401 – 584 days; on average 474 days.[32] George C. Wheeler and Jeanette Wheeler (1971) described very young larvae of the jack jumper as 2.4mm in length, with two types of body hair. They also described young larvae (matured from very young larvae) at 2.7mm in length but with similar body characteristics to mature larvae, at 12.5mm in length.[33]

Reproduction[edit]

Jack jumper drones emerging from the nest

Queens will mate with between 1 and 9 males during a nuptial flight, and the effective number of mates per queen was ranged at 1.0 to 11.4.[34] The relative frequency of the number of matings per queen, as well as the effective number of matings, decline if there are more male mates for the queen.[34] Jack jumper colonies are polygyne; they have multiple queens in one colony.[11] When the queen establishes a nest after mating, she will hunt for food to feed her young, making her semi-claustral.[11] Nest sizes can be as small as 500 or as large as 1,000 individuals, making them "large" in size, or with another estimate at 553 to 862 adults.[11][31] Using the measuring method of alloenzymes,[31] it was found that some colonies are polygynous and polyandrous.[34] In a study of jack jumper colony genetic structure, there were between 1 and 4 queens per colony, and 11 of the 14 colonies tested were polygynous (78.57%), indicating that this is common in jack jumper colonies.[34] The jack jumper ant possesses the gamergates gene, with which workers are able to reproduce in both queenless and queenright (colonies with a queen) colonies.[31] In multiple-queen colonies, the egg-laying queens are usually not related to one another.[34]

Genetics[edit]

The jack jumper ant genome is contained on a single pair of chromosomes (males have just one chromosome, as they are haploid). This is the lowest number known (indeed possible) for any animal.[35] A study found that jack jumper ants have chromosome numbers of 2n = 2, 9, 10, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 30, 31 and 32.[5] Taxonomically discussed as a single biological species,[1][4] this information has also indicated that the chromosome numbers change in accordance with habitat elevation.[5] In the jack jumper ant, chromosome rearrangement was used to explain the origin of a long metacentric chromosome through the fusion of the subtelocentric and an acrocentric chromosome.[36][37] A study found that the jack jumper had 9 polymorphic loci, which yielded a total of 67 alleles, that ranged from 3 to 12 with an average of 7.44 per locus, and the observed heterozygosities ranged from 0.5625 to 0.9375, and from 0.4863 to 08711, respectively.[38]

Interaction with humans[edit]

History[edit]

Dr. Paul Clark first drew medical attention to the jack jumper ant in 1986; prior to this there had been no history on fatalities or study on their sting venom.[39] The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy began registering reactions to the jack jumper in 1989 to 1994, where they recorded 454 sting episodes in 224 subjects.[16]

Incidence[edit]

The extent of the jack jumper sting problem differs between areas, allergy prevalence rates are significantly lower in highly urbanised areas than in rural areas. Allergic reactions and incidents with jack jumpers are much higher in rural areas, and people stung in such areas are more likely to experience severe reactions. Jack jumper ants are a hazard in the southern states of Australia, mainly due to the increased vulnerability of people in these areas to the sting.[40][41][42] In urban areas, 17-30% of anaphylaxis cases are due to stings, but in rural areas this is around 60%.[43] The jack jumper ant is responsible for the majority of anaphylaxis cases in Australia,[42] and rates of anaphylaxis are twice those of honeybee stings.[44]

The jack jumper ant is notorious in Tasmania, where the most fatalities have been recorded.[13] The jack jumper ant has also been a major cause of anaphylaxis outside Tasmania, notably around Adelaide and the outskirts of Melbourne, while cases in New South Wales and Western Australia have been more distributed.[45] One in 50 adults have been reported to suffer anaphylaxis due to the jack jumper or other Myrmecia ants.[42] One in three million annually die of general anaphalaxis.[46] Over 90% of Australian ant venom allergies have been caused by the jack jumper.[47]

Venom[edit]

Jack jumper specimen. The jack jumper attacks with both its mandibles and sting.

The jack jumper ant and its relatives in the genus Myrmecia are among the most dangerous ant genera and have earned themselves fearsome reputations for their extreme aggression; Guinness World Records even listed Myrmecia pyriformis as the world's most dangerous ant.[48][49] Jack jumpers have been compared to other highly aggressive ant species, such as Pachycondyla sennaarensis, Pachycondyla chinensis and the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta).[50] Their venom has been shown to contain haemolytic and eicosanoid elements, as well as histamines. It contains a range of active ingredients and enzymatic activity which includes phospholipase A2 and B, hyaluronidase and acid and alkaline phosphatase.[51][52] The venom of the ant also contains two peptides; one being pilosulin 1, which causes cytotoxic effects, and the other being pilosulin 2, which has antihypertensive properties. The peptides have known molecular weights.[53][54] Pilosulin 1 inhibits the incorporation of methyl-3H thymidine into rapidly reproducing Epstein–Barr transformed B-cells.[55] The LD50 (lethal dose) occurs at a lower concentration than for melittin, a peptide found in bee venom.[55][56] Foraging queens collected from Hobart contained a sting bulb gland, but an incomplete section series has not shown one in worker ants.[57]

Loss of cell viability in the jack jumper's venom was researched through cytometry, which measures the proportions of cells that glow in the presence of fluorescent dye and 7-Aminoactinomycin D.[55] Examinations on the rapidly reproducing Epstein–Barr B-cells showed that the cells lost viability within minutes when exposed to pilosulin 1. Normal white blood cells were found to alter easily when also exposed to pilosulin 1.[55] However, partial peptides of pilosulin 1 were less efficient at lowering cell viability; it is suggested that the residue 22 N-terminal plays a critical role in the cytotoxic activity of pilosulin 1 within the venom of the jack jumper ant.[55]

20 percent of jack jumper ants have an empty venom sac,[58] so a negative sting reaction from a jack jumper ant, especially after an allergic reaction, should not be interpreted as a loss of sensitivity. This is despite the fact that the severity of allergic reactions caused by insect stings tends to fluctuate.[58] Substantial amounts of ant venom have been analysed in order to characterise venom components, and the jack jumper has been one of the main subjects in this.[59] An East Carolina University study which summarised the knowledge about ant stings and their venom showed that only the fire ant and jack jumper had the allergenic components of their venom extensively investigated.[60] These allergenic components include peptides that are found as heterodimers, homodimers and pilosulin 3.[60]

Signs and symptoms[edit]

Jack jumper stings show similar symptoms to fire ant stings; namely local swelling, reddening and fever, followed by the formation of a blister. The sting from jack jumpers, bees and wasps are the most common causes of anaphylaxis from insect stings.[61][62][63] People most commonly feel a sharp pain after these stings, similar to that from an electric shock.[64] Some patients developed a systemic allergic skin reaction after being stung by a jack jumper.[65] The heart rate increases, and blood pressure falls rapidly.[66] A severe allergic reaction can cause symptoms such as difficulty breathing, swelling of the tongue and throat, coughing, chest tightness, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, loss of consciousness or collapse, and in children, symptoms like paleness and floppiness.[67]

In individuals allergic to the venom (about 2-3% of the population), a sting sometimes causes anaphylactic shock.[68][69][70] Although the median time from sting to cardiac arrest is 15 minutes, the maximum period is around three hours.[42][47] The jack jumper ant allergy does not disappear quickly, as it has been shown in studies that people with jack jumper allergies will most likely suffer from another allergic reaction if re-stung.[42] Approximately 70 percent of patients with a history of systemic reaction to the ant's sting had a further reaction to the sting.[58] About half of these reactions were life-threatening to the person stung and occurred predominantly in people who have had previous encounters with the string.[58] Anaphylaxis in jack jumper ant stings is not rare; 2.9% of 600 residents from semi-rural Victoria had allergic reactions to the ant's sting, according to a questionnaire.[71] The sensitivity to stings is persistent for many years, and figures for honey bee and european wasp allergies compared to jack jumper allergies show 50% and 25%.[72]

In 2011, an Australian ant allergy venom study was conducted, with the objective of determining which native Australian ants were associated with ant sting anaphylaxis. It showed that the jack jumper ant was responsible for the majority of patients showing a reaction to Myrmecia ant stings. Of the 265 patients who reacted to a sting from an ant belonging to the Myrmecia genus, 176 were from the jack jumper. 15 from M. nigrocincta and three from M. ludlowi. 56 patients had reacted to other Myrmecia ants. The study concluded that four native species of Australian ants caused anaphylaxis. Apart from Myrmecia species, the green-head ant (Rhytidoponera metallica) was on this list.[45]

First aid and emergency treatment[edit]

The Royal Hobart Hospital in Hobart, Tasmania offers a desensitisation program for people who are prone to severe anaphylactic reactions to jack jumper ant stings

Treatment of a jack jumper ant sting is very similar to that for wasp and bee stings. Jack jumper stings are the single most common cause of anaphylaxis in patients at the Royal Hobart Hospitals.[51] Fatalities are rare and all known jack jumper fatalities were at at least 40 years old and had cardiopulmonary comorbidities.[68][73] One in five people need a second adrenaline injection when being treated for severe anaphylaxis.[74] Two of the victims were taking angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, which are known to increase the risk of anaphylaxis.[68] Three had ant sting allergies, while the fourth victim carried adrenaline, which he did not use.[68] Severe laryngeal oedema and coronary atherosclerosis was detected in most of the autopsies of the fatalities. This showed that most of the victims died within 20 minutes of being stung.[73] Medications such as antihistamines, H2 blockers, corticosteroids and anti-leukotrienes have no effect on anaphylaxis.[16]

Desensitisation[edit]

Desensitisation (also called allergy immunotherapy) to the jack jumper sting venom has shown to be effective in preventing anaphylaxis.[75][76] However, unlike for bee and wasp stings, there is lack of funding for jack jumper immunotherapy.[77] Venom in available; however, it is not produced commercially owing to the small demand.[16]

The Royal Hobart Hospital offers a desensitisation program for patients who have had a severe allergic reaction to a jack jumper sting.[17] Rapid dose increases have been found to be as safe as slower dose increases during immunotherapy.[78]

There have been multiple clinical trials for placebo treatment and venom immunotherapy. Systemic reactions were much more likely in people who were under placebo treatment in comparison to venom immunotherapy. Also, patients who did react while on venom immunotherapy had less severe reactions.[75] Follow-ups of untreated people older than 30 years old and with a history of severe allergic reactions (such as respiratory compromise and hypotension) indicated that they would benefit from the venom immunotherapy.[79] The efficacy (capacity to induce a therapeutic effect) of ant whole body extract immunotherapy remains unknown, but it was shown to reduce the risk of systemic reactions caused by the jack jumper's sting; the risk rate declined from 72% to 3%.[79] Although venom extraction has been developed, its small market size would incur limited availability.[79] Ultrarush initiation of insect immunotherapy is also known to increase the risk of systemic reactions, in comparison to semirush initiation (65% versus 29% for systemic reactions and 12% versus 0% for severe reactions).[80]

Prevention[edit]

It has been suggested that people should avoid jack jumpers, but this is difficult to do.[16] Closed footwear (boots and shoes) along with socks should be worn, rather than thongs or sandals, which put the person at risk.[16] With this said, jack jumpers are still capable of stinging through fabric, and can find their way through gaps in clothing.[16]

Prognosis[edit]

Most people recover uneventfully following a mild local reaction and up to about 3% of individuals suffer a severe localized reaction.[74] Fatalities are rare.[74] Between 1980 and 2000, there have been four recorded deaths,[17] all in Tasmania and all due to anaphylactic shock.[42][81][82] Outside this time period, there has been one fatality in New South Wales and another separate incident in Tasmania, bringing the total fatalities to six.[73] Venom immunotherapy can prevent fatalities.[75]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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