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Rare ant rescued from brink of extinction with help of DIY conservation tools ©John Walters/Buglife/PA News

Rare ant rescued from brink of extinction with help of DIY conservation tools

Published: 06th January, 2021 at 16:41
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The narrow-headed ant's habitat had been reduced to a single site in England thanks to the loss of heathland.

It’s amazing what you can do with some garden equipment, old fish tanks and net curtains. A project led by wildlife charity Buglife and Devon Wildlife Trust has used a collection of seemingly ragtag DIY conservation tools to help rescue the endangered narrow-headed ant (Formica exsecta) from extinction.


The future of the rare ants was starting to look bleak due to the loss of their heathland habitat. Things had gotten so bad that the insects became confined to a single site in Chudleigh Knighton, near Newton Abbot, Devon.

But a project involving local volunteers, wildlife charities Buglife and Devon Wildlife Trust, the Highways Agency and Paignton Zoo over the last three years has significantly boosted the prospects of the ant in its remaining south Devon home.

The team have successfully created, restored, maintained, and linked up heathland habitats, across 200 of the ants’ distinctive doomed nest structures at Chudleigh Knighton. They also introduced cattle to keep down vegetation which could shade the ants’ nests too much and smother the open heath at an appropriate level.

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They also moved several narrow-headed ant nests to former sites nearby at Bovey Heathfield and Teigngrace Meadow by carefully moving nests using DIY equipment including garden tools such as trowels and wheelbarrows, scraps of roofing felt, old fish tanks and net curtains, while one large nest was moved using a borrowed mini-digger.

The moved ant nests received slices of apples as a housewarming gift to provide them with sugar.

“I’ve been engaged with the plight of Formica exsecta for 18 years,” said Back from the Brink project officer for Buglife Stephen Carroll. “I saw the last nest succumb and die out at its penultimate site in 2004. It’s great to see the first significant steps to recovery, which might have been our last chance, and just in time.”

Signs the ants have settled in will be when they are seen exploring for aphids and collecting their honeydew, and venturing out further to forage for insects, carrion and nest material, the conservationists said.


While the main project has finished, ‘Nest Quest’ a public participation survey and appeal for wood ant nest records, will continue on the Buglife website. If you spot a narrow-headed ant nest, Buglife will definitely be interested to hear from you.

Reader Q&A: How strong are ants?

Asked by: Charlie Rees, Bromley

Asian weaver ants can carry 500mg – about 100 times their body weight. At their tiny scale though, carrying heavy objects is less about muscle strength and more about grip.

Ants have self-cleaning sticky pads on their feet and can vary the size of the contact patch on the ground so they aren’t overbalanced by their load, even when upside-down!

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Science Focus Podcast.


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