giant ants
Red fire ants are able to kill off other ant colonies and can have destructive effects on flora and other animalsAlexanderY/Flickr

An infestation of South American red fire ants has been discovered in Sydney, Australia, prompting calls for biosecurity measures.

The ants were found earlier this week at the Port Botany container terminal. They are believed to have originated overseas.

It is the first time that the highly aggressive insect, which injects venom when it stings, has been found in Australia outside Queensland.

The discovery has sparked an emergency response, and the ants have been sent to Brisbane's Fire Ant Control Centre for genetic testing.

Rob Bowman, DPI Senior Regulatory Inspector, told SBS World News: "[We are] quarantining this area of land to prohibit the movement of soil and any other material that may harbour ants to prevent further spread.

"Fire ants are the most serious invasive ant pest that we can have. This is our first detection in New South Wales. The ant is quite aggressive and inflicts very painful stings and it will affect livestock and humans that encounter its nests."

The insect is listed as a "key threatening process" under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

It is able to kill off other ant colonies and can have destructive effects on flora, other insects, small lizards and even hatching birds.

According to the federal Department of the Environment, the imported red fire ants can form "supercolonies" that can spread very quickly.

Trained sniffer dogs have been brought in to help destroy the ants.

"This is the foot and mouth [disease] equivalent for our environment and our way of life," said Andrew Cox, of the Invasive Species Council.

Imported red fire ants are small and reddish-brown in colour. They are native to South America, but six known species of fire ants are known to exist in the US, three of which are found in the southern state of Arizona.

According to the Texas imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project, the impact of red imported fire ants to the state of Texas is estimated to be around $1.2bn (£770m) every year.