Ants That Sacrifice Themselves

May 8, 2018 By Elena W, Writer Intern
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This past week, a new species of ants was discovered by researchers in Brunei.

This particular population, the Colobopsis explodens, comes with a twist--these ants can explode! Two weeks ago, the researchers published a description of the newly identified and named species in the scientific journal Zookeys.

As the first new exploding ant species to be discovered since 1935, these small creatures mark a big milestone in our understanding of them.

Colobopsis Explodens

Outside the Kuala Belalong Field Studies Center, there is a colony of Colobopsis explodens ants, and they are very protective of their nest. When they sense a threat to their colony, they defend the others with a self-sacrificial “explosion”.

What occurs, though, is not necessarily what first comes to mind when you think “explosion”--there is no spontaneous combustion involved. Instead, the ant cuts open their own abdomens and release a “yellow goo” of toxins against its attacker. The predator is poisoned by the sticky chemicals and can no longer cause any harm to the others. The ants sacrifice their own lives to protect their own--for the greater good of the colony as a whole.

These exploding ants are sterile female worker ants. Researchers found that the species has another adaptation to protect the nests if the predators get past these exploding worker ants. The larger females (also sterile) have an odd wedge-shaped, enlarged head with which they can plug the hole to their nests!

What’s Next?

C. explodens is not the first exploding ant species to be discovered. Exploding ants are native to rainforests and are found in the tree canopies of Southeastern Asia--specifically, Borneo, Malaysia, and Thailand.

The Field Studies Center in Borneo also found fifteen other previously discovered exploding ant species in the vicinity, and they used those species for comparison with the new population. Those other colonies helped researchers to identify that C. explodens was a distinct species and to recognize some of its individual traits.

The study concluded that C. explodens is a good “model species” for all Southeast Asian exploding ant species, since it displays most of the common features and behaviors associated with other exploding ants. This means that in the future, scientists will be able to study the generic characteristics of all types of exploding ants using one representative species, which reduces research costs and saves time. 

Sources: NYTimes, Guardian, Sciencemag, Washington Post, Zookeys