This planet sure has its share of incredible life forms, and the exploding ants of Borneo can stand up with the best of them. When threatened by other insects, they rupture their own body walls, releasing a toxic, sticky liquid which kills or immobilizes their attacker.

Exploding behavior of an unfortunate Colobopsis explodens in an experimental setting with a weaver ant. Image credits: Alexey Kopchinskiy.

These ants were first mentioned more than a century ago, back in 1916. Surprisingly, they were chalked off as little more than a curiosity, and were only classified as a species in 1935. It wasn’t until 2014 that a multi-disciplinary expedition properly described them. The collaborative effort featured entomologists, botanists, microbiologists, and chemists from the Natural History Museum Vienna, Technical University Vienna, IFA Tulln and Universiti Brunei Darussalam. Together, they identified 15 separate species of exploding ants, and one of them has now been thoroughly described in the open access journal ZooKeys.

The species previously nicknamed “Yellow Goo” due to its bright yellow gland secretion, has now been named Colobopsis explodens. The species has been picked as the model species for the group, with researchers noting that its behavior is “particularly prone to self-sacrifice when threatened by enemy arthropods, as well as intruding researchers”.

The team reports that the ants have developed extreme abilities, similar to what computer games often feature. For instance, minor workers have developed the self-destructive ability to explode, taking their attackers with them. Meanwhile, some major workers (called door-keepers) have developed plug-shaped heads used to physically barricade the nest entrances against intruders.

Researchers have also observed queens and males on a mating flight, and they have sampled the first males of these ants that were ever seen. They also documented the ants’ schedule and food preferences, as well as tracked how their explosive behavior is used.

These exploding ants seem to play a dominant role in their rainforest ecosystem, but other than what has been described so far, we know very little of them. It’s fairly uncommon for creatures to develop such dramatic abilities, and the processes which led to this evolution are still unclear.

The study is just the first of many currently in preparation describing the ants’ behavior, chemical profile, microbiology, anatomy, and evolution, scientists say. The team has also set up a website, ExplodingAnts.com, where you can follow news, updates, and media from the project.

Journal Reference: Laciny A, Zettel H, Kopchinskiy A, Pretzer C, Pal A, Salim KA, Rahimi MJ, Hoenigsberger M, Lim L, Jaitrong W, Druzhinina IS (2018) Colobopsis explodens sp. n., model species for studies on “exploding ants” (Hymenoptera, Formicidae), with biological notes and first illustrations of males of the Colobopsis cylindrica group. ZooKeys 751: 1-40. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.751.22661

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