Exploding Ants: New Species Bursts Into Toxic Goo to Destroy Its Enemies

4_23_C. explodens ant
Exploding behavior of C. explodens in experimental setting with a weaver ant. Alexey Kopchinskiy CC-BY 4.0

A newly described species of ant from Southeast Asia explodes in defense of its colony, spewing out a toxic goo that can slow down or even kill its enemies. The critters burst the walls of their own bodies, releasing a yellow irritant from special enlarged glands.

Researchers described the self-sacrificing species, which crawls the the tropical rainforests of Borneo, Thailand and Malaysia, in the journal ZooKeys. The creatures—aptly named Colobopsis explodens—will serve as a model for scientists investigating other "exploding ants."

Although researchers have discussed ants that blow themselves up in literature dating back to 1916, this is the first time a new species has been formally cataloged since 1935. Until now, scientists just referred to them as members of the "exploding ant" species group—Colobopsis cylindrica.

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The ants are "particularly prone to self-sacrifice" in the face of other invertebrates—insects, spiders and crustaceans, for example—as well as nosey researchers, the authors wrote.

Like other ant species, the different members of a Colobopsis explodens colony have defined roles. Small minor workers are selfless ants that explode into yellow goo in combat, while major workers or "soldier ants" barricade the nest entrance with their massive plug-shaped heads.

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While the scientists were researching the impressive critters, they even managed to sample males of the species. Workers, for example, are all sterile females.

Fascinated by the bizarre insects, the team are studying a number exploding ant species as part of the Exploding Ants project. Although the selfless critters play a dominant role in their rainforest habitats, scientist still have much to learn about their biology. The team hopes to describe other species like Colobopsis explodens soon.