Researchers Discover New Species of Ant That Explodes to Protect Colony

Researchers have shed new light on this incredible self-sacrificing insect that explodes when it senses threat.
Jessica Miley

Scientists have discovered a new species of exploding  Ant in Borneo. This incredible species lives up to its name, by self-destructing when it feels threat towards its colony.

Ants are fascinating creatures, though tiny, they can carry items many times their body weight, build incredible architecture and self - organize into super social, super efficient communities. Exploding ants were first discovered by scientists in the first half of the 20th century.

Ants self-rupture when stressed

While they don’t actually explode in a tiny cloud of dust, the ants have the ability to self-rupture their abdominal wall when they feel that the safety of their colony is in danger. After doing so, their expanded, swollen abdomen then produces a sticky liquid that is lethal to many intruders.

These tiny creatures display a type of self-sacrifice that is admirable. This suicidal behaviour is called “autothysis,” and has also been documented in termites.

It is only able to be present, in what scientist call ‘super-social organisms’. Unlike most species who seek to preserve their own self and immediate offspring, ants and termites constant work to protect the colony or collective.

In these cases, the loss of one individual is not considered as a travesty if the safety of the collective remains. While researchers have been documenting exploding ants for well over a one hundred years, there have been no new species identified since 1935.

The collaborative expedition finds new species

This lack of new discovery seemed odd to a group of scientists who put together a team to head to Borneo, Thailand, and Malaysia to investigate these weird and wonderful ants. The team was made up of scientists from the Natural History Museum Vienna, Technical University Vienna, and other contributing institutions.

The results of the expedition have now been published in the science journal ZooKeys. The article identifies 15 separate species of exploding ants, including a brand new species only just discovered.

The new species is called Colobopsis explodens, but researchers from the trip have dubbed it “yellow goo” because of the lurid yellow secretion it emits. This new ant species will now act as a reference point for future research as it displayed qualities that scientist can say are an exemplar of the species.

Colobopsis explodens is very prone to self-sacrifice when threatened and its behavior can be used as a base for other research into similar species. The scientists reported that the ant was so sensitive to threats to the colony that they witnessed it exploding even when the researchers came too close.

Ants evolved bodies for particular tasks

The scientists say that only the worker ants, who are at the lowest of the social ranks have the ability to self-sacrifice, but they also documented other protective behaviors further up the food chain. The ant responsible for the entrance and exit fo the colony, known as the ‘doorkeeper’ has a special plug shaped head it uses to block the hole when necessary.