Let’s get a few things out of the way right up front. The Exploding Ants would be a great name for a band. The Suicidal Exploding Ants would be even better. A collection of exploding ants in one of those plastic ant farms would provide some people with hours of sadistic fun, even if they’re not using recreational mood enhancers. And, for those who are wondering, exploding ants are real but exceedingly rare creatures and researchers in Borneo have just discovered a new species of them living in treetops. Depending on how big they are, the people of Borneo probably appreciate them staying up there.
According to a new study published in ZooKeys, Colobopsis explodens is the latest entry on the list of 15 known species of exploding ants, which were first discovered in 1916, live (and apparently die violently) mainly in the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia, and haven’t added a new name to the species catalogue since 1935. That changed recently when researchers from the Natural History Museum Vienna, Technical University Vienna and other institutions traveled to Borneo, Thailand, and Malaysia to survey ants. (How did they explain to their parents that their goal in life was to climb trees in jungles to count ants? Asking for a friend.)
What they found high in the trees were bloated ants which, when confronted with dangers like predators or scientists, self-erupted and sprayed a sticky yellow and highly toxic goo everywhere as their final dying act for the ant collective. Myrmecologists (people who study ants) have a less descriptive name for this suicidal behavior – autothysis – and report seeing it in a few species of termites, but nothing like the horror movie plot-ish display these ants put on in Borneo.
The team confirmed that not all of the ants had the ability to become tiny suicide bombers, finding that only a minor class of workers were exploders. They’re born with large, poison-filled glands and extra-strong abdominal muscles that contract under stress, bursting the glands to release the poison … killing the brave exploding ant (although the whole action is probably reflexive and involuntary) and either killing the predator or wounding it enough that in never visits that treetop again. The chemical in the sticky goo is an irritant and corrosive – entangling, immobilizing and painfully torturing the invader. Is this going to make a great movie or what? (A short documentary video on the exploding ants can be seen here.)
If that’s not enough, the other castes in the colony have their own non-exploding quirks. There are so-called “doorkeepers” which have huge heads that they use to block the entrance to the ant nest. For the first time ever, the researchers witnessed a male and female ant mating in flight – yes, they can fly too and do it while airborne, putting them in an ant version of the mile high club. And, because no other species want to mess with them, they feast on whatever they want, including fruit, other insects and fish.
Now, all we need is for some of these Colobopsis explodens to be exposed to a high level of radiation – maybe a disabled space station loaded with toxic fuel crashes in the jungle – and we’ve got a reason for them to grow to monstrous sizes and destroy entire cities until a character played by Chris Pratt figures out how to build a giant magnifying glass to fry them into extinction. Revenge of the Ant Farm – coming soon to a theater near you.