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Exploding ants: Scientist survey fiery species in Southeast Asia

By
Brooks Hays
An exploding ant minor worker prepares to blow himself up. Photo by Pensoft Publishers
An exploding ant minor worker prepares to blow himself up. Photo by Pensoft Publishers

April 19 (UPI) -- Scientists have known about the suicide bombers of the ant world for some time, but had yet to fully investigate the group's diversity. Until recently, scientists referred to the group as "exploding ants."

Now, the species group, formally named Colobopsis cylindrica, has finally been surveyed by an international team of scientists. On Thursday, the team formally described the first-ever exploding ant species in the journal ZooKeys.

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Like its relatives, the new species, appropriately named Colobopsis explodens, can rupture its body cavity, triggering the release of a yellow, toxic excretion. Naturally, scientists nicknamed the species "yellow goo."

Only worker ants explode. The self-sacrifice is a defense mechanism used to scare away or harm approaching enemies.

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"[The ants are] particularly prone to self-sacrifice when threatened by enemy arthropods, as well as intruding researchers," researchers wrote in their paper.

While minor workers blow themselves up, other exploding ant castes perform different defensive duties. Major workers, dubbed "doorkeepers," use their large heads to barricade the ant colony entrance when raiders get too close.

The team of scientists from Austria, Thailand and Brunei have been surveying exploding ant populations since 2014. So far, they've identified 15 different species, but only one has been formally described. The researchers hope their formal description will serve as a baseline and guide for future papers on exploding ants.

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"While the exploding ants play a dominant role in rainforests, their biology still holds a number of secrets," researchers wrote in a news release. "The observations and experiments conducted on the newly described species have laid important groundwork for future research that will uncover even more details about these enigmatic explosive insects."

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