Page last updated at 08:02 GMT, Tuesday, 30 September 2008 09:02 UK

Island ant colony helps species

Red-barbed ant
Queen ants can live more than 10 years

An extremely rare ant on the edge of extinction in mainland Britain is having its numbers replenished from a colony found on the Isles of Scilly.

There is thought to be only one nest of the red-barbed ant (Formica Rufibarbis) on Chobham Common in Surrey.

However, the species continues to thrive in St Martin's.

The Zoological Society of London and Surrey Wildlife Trust collected newly mated queens from the island in the summer to safeguard the ant's future.

About 50 queen ants were kept in quarantine at London Zoo until a colony was established.

The conditions in St Martin's are ideal
Dr Simon Newell, Surrey Wildlife Trust

These queens and their attendant workers have now been released on Chobham Common.

Dr Simon Newell from the Surrey Wildlife Trust told BBC News the decline of the UK population of red-barbed ants was mainly due to a loss of its natural heathland habitat.

"The conditions in St Martin's are ideal - short turf and nice, hot and sunny weather," he said.

Dr Powell said the ants, which are now classed as a national Biodiversity Action Plan priority, are a valuable component of Surrey's heathland ecosystems, both as predators and food for other native species such as woodpeckers and sand lizards.

St Martin's, Isles of Scilly: Pic Beth Hilton
Short turf and sunny weather make St Martin's an ideal ant habitat

"All our biodiversity is important and it would be a tragedy if we were to lost the red ant," he said.

As well as being threatened by its loss of habitat, the red-barbed ant is also in peril from another ant species - the slave making ant - which steals its young, killing any worker ants that try to protect them.

The red-barbed ant queens can live for more than 10 years and mate only once in their lifetime, storing sperm inside their bodies to fertilize eggs for the rest of their life.

The three-year project is being carried out in partnership with the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust and Natural England and has been funded by a grant of nearly 50,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.




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