JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is home to an array of animals from all around the world.
But there is one insect in particular the zoo is currently trying to get rid of once and for all.
"We've had them crawling up people's shoes and all over fences and things," said Dan Maloney, the zoo's deputy director of conservation and education.
Maloney is referring to an invasive species of ant known as the crazy ant, which gets its name from its erratic and sudden movements.
The ant is native to Brazil and Columbia, but researchers believe it migrated to the United States in the '90s through cargo transportation.
Dr. Faith Oi from the University of Florida is an expert entomologist in the field and has studied the crazy ant extensively.
She told First Coast News the Jacksonville area is one of the first places the crazy ant started to reproduce.
In particular, the zoo, which sits next to bodies of water used for cargo on the city's north side, has been dealing with the ants in large numbers for the last several years.
"Possibly billions of ants. That's not out of the realm, and we don't like to scare people with that number, but it's very possible," Dr. Oi said.
The issue is not that the crazy ant is dangerous or poses a threat to humans or animals.
Crazy ants are not poisonous and do no transmit any diseases.
But Dr. Oi said the sheer volume of them can be overwhelming when in contact with a person or animal.
"While it doesn't sting, the numbers are so tremendous that when they start to crawl up on you, it's very unnerving. Even for an entomologist," she said.
She explained the ants are natural searchers and therefore "take things over" because they're trying to figure out the subject they are on.
At Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Maloney said they also received reports of crazy ants causing a problem on the train.
He said so many of them would be on the tracks, they would clog up the train's gear system.
"As the wheels of the train pulled them up, we know there certainly were a lot of ants kind of gumming up in the gearing of the wheels," Maloney said.
The zoo is now working with Dr. Oi and other outlets on the First Coast to reduce the number of crazy ants present.
Dr. Oi has implemented a bait system around the perimeter of the zoo's grounds.
"Baiting is where you put a toxicant into a food substrant. So there is a poison that's incorporated into food that is not detected by the ant," she said.
In other words, Dr. Oi said the ants are not aware they are eating poison and are therefore passing it along to their queens, which results in all of their deaths.
Oi said, "They're killing themselves and they don't even know it."
She said killing the crazy ant queen is crucial because it disrupts the rapid reproductive cycle of this species.
"Using a bait toxicant, because you're impacting the numbers in the colony, you can suppress that colony for up to 50 percent," Dr. Oi said.
Maloney said it is hard to know exactly how many crazy ants have been killed at the zoo since the bait system has been installed.
But he said there is a noticeable difference.
"We are not seeing the kind of concentrations of crazy ants we once did," he said.
Maloney also cautioned the zoo has received no reports of any injuries to guests, staff or animals.
He remains hopeful the bait system will continue to eradicate the crazy ants at the zoo, but acknowledges it's an uphill climb.
He said, "But I don't think anyone is going to stop crazy ants in the rest of Florida, at least I can't imagine."
Meanwhile, homeowners have steps they can take to lower their risk of attracting crazy ants.
Dr. Oi recommends cleaning up any yard waste like leaves, branches or old patio furniture.
"If the legs are hollow, they'll get up into that and use that as a place to breed and hide," she said.
Dr. Oi also recommended against spraying for crazy ants, saying it is a broad approach that does not target the colonies as much as her bait system.
She said you should check with licensed pest control companies to see if they offer any similar procedures.
First Coast News