Abstract 1. The earliest exotic records for two notorious invasive ants, the big-headed ant (Pheidole megacephala) and the Argentine ant (Linepithema humile), both come from the Atlantic islands of Madeira, where the two species underwent population explosions in the 1850s and 1890s respectively. Researchers have long assumed that these invaders spread across all of Madeira and exterminated most or all native ants, despite no research actually documenting such impact.
2. Re-examination of first-hand nineteenth century accounts suggest that P. megacephala and L. humile may never have spread beyond coastal lowland areas, representing < 10% of Madeira’s land area. In 2002, native ants dominated most of Madeira; P. megacephala and L. humile were restricted to ≈ 0.3% and ≈ 6% of Madeira’s land area respectively.
3. Of the 10 native ant species known from Madeira, only one (Temnothorax wollastoni) was not present in 1999–2002 surveys. Although exotic ants may have exterminated T. wollastoni, it seems likely that this species still survives.
4. Thus, even after 150 or more years of residence, P. megacephala and L. humile have come to occupy only a small part of Madeira, and appear to have had little impact.
5. Most of Madeira may be too cool for P. megacephala and perhaps too moist for L. humile to dominate. Also, Madeira’s vast natural areas may generally lack weedy vegetation that can support high densities of plant-feeding Hemiptera critical for the ecological dominance of invasive ants. Finally, a dominant native ant, Lasius grandis, inhabiting ≈ 84% of Madeira, may actively exclude P. megacephala and L. humile.