Type of “Exploding Ants” Discovered in Borneo

Sometimes, biological discoveries are inexplicable, except somehow by serendipity — or perhaps how the ecological balance of the world makes way for good things — as seen in the resurfacing of the supposedly extinct crest-tailed mulgara in Australia or the resurgence of the starfish population in South California. Sometimes, much-studied and long-awaited breakthroughs happen, as seen in the unearthing of 215 dinosaur eggs in China.

Other times, scientific research takes a backseat for almost a century due to a lack of progress, until certain individuals bring it upon themselves to finally answer some questions. Such is the case when an interdisciplinary research team did an expedition to Borneo, Thailand, and Malaysia to study “exploding ants” again — the first time since 1935.

The team from the Natural History Museum Vienna, Technical University Vienna, and other contributing institutions published the results of their studies where they were able to identify 15 separate species of exploding ants, including one new discovery.

The new species is called Colobopsis explodens, but the researchers like to call it “yellow goo” on account of its bright yellow grand secretion. The researchers consider C. explodens to be a model species of exploding ant, which means it’ll now serve as a reference point, or an exemplar, for future research. The new species earned this designation because it’s particularly prone to self-sacrifice when threatened.

When threatened, the newfound species of Southeast Asian exploding ants intentionally rupture their own abdomen to release a sticky and toxic substance that can kill the enemy. Called “autothysis,” this suicidal mechanism can only be found in super-social organisms like ants, who work towards the preservation of their colony rather than the life of any individual insect.

[I]n addition to documenting the ants’ exploding behavior in more detail, the researchers also studied their eating habits; these insects like to munch on algae, moss, fungi, dead insects, fruit, and fish.

The discovery itself of an interesting species should already be lauded as a great contribution to biology. But what’s more important about the work of these scientists is how they laid the groundwork for future research involving these insects.

We must have missed a lot of scientific opportunities in the past. This is why being very proud of rediscovering them is the farthest thing from making a mountain out of an anthill.

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