54: Exploding Ants
Meet C. explodens; where worker ants rupture their own abdomens–filled with toxic goo–to protect the colony from predators.
Exploding Ants Transcript:
Welcome to Brain Junk, I’m Trace Kerr, and I’m Amy Barton and this is a Brain Storm.
And this Brain Storm was actually inspired by the delightful Lani Caraway, who sent us a wonderful post. And this is a bit of a divergence from that, but Lani, you did inspire this. So it’s about exploding ants.
TK: Oh god!
AB: So great! All of my subjects are SO cheerful.
TK: I would imagine the ants don’t feel so great about the exploding part.
AB: They’re doing it for the greater good, so I would imagine they feel noble in their moment of sacrifice.
TK: Of explosion? All right, Tell me about exploding ants.
AB:In the spring of 2018 a group of scientists officially published the name and description of the species colobopsis explodens, and they call them c explodens in a lot of their papers. And apparently, to categorize a species it’s not, you know, they name it after themselves and it happens in that moment. It is not. They observe the thing, but until they describe the whole structured colony, in this case, the queen, the worker, females, males, the whole ball of wax, they won’t give it a name. And so finally, this year they had enough information they observed. There was a whole colony at Kuala Belalong Field Studies in Brunai, and so scientists had been watching the ants eagerly. And one of the interesting things about this group is, there is a group of ants in the doorway and as the ants come in and go out the guard ants just touch everybody. Just “Hey, Bob, hey Jim.” Actually it’s all ladies.
TK: I was going to say they’re all female, so it’s like “Hey Bertha.”
AB: And so the cool thing, the reason they’re called the c explodens is that as this touching process is happening, these guard ants, if they perceive a predator and not Phyllis, what happens when a predator is perceived when their nest is being invaded, they rupture their own abdomens and that releases a sticky, bright yellow fluid that has toxins in it that oozes onto the predator and it’s toxic so they will die. And so they really are sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the colony. Which is something that we saw in-again, I wish you could see Trace’s face-uh, we saw that in the sick ants episode. They’re willing to do what is best for the colony. It’s such an interesting phenomenon to see in multiple ways. I think Trace is looking for a video of the exploding ants.
TK: You bet your bippy I’m looking for a video of the exploding ants.
AB: Alice Laciny is a graduate student from the Natural History Museum in Vienna, and she is one of the authors on the paper. You’ll have to go, I’m going to put a link to the article in the New York Times on this, and go read it, because they made her very relatable. At one point they realized “Oh my gosh! There’s males flying out of the colony!” So they go dashing after them to try to document and catch, because they need to have samples of this. So I just have this image of her running through the forest with her little vials trying to catch them.
TK: Oh gosh-this is awful! They explode upon contact-oh! And here’s an ant covered with goo.
AB: That’s why it touches them and doesn’t just observe. You might get the death grab,
TK: Yeah! It just grabbed ahold and went >splerk< and kind of gooed itself out on the other ant.
AB: Defense mechanisms of nature. Kind of gross.
TK: Bring it on.
AB: Mhmmm. Thank you Alice, for your work with exploding ants.
TK: Yay! Want to hear more? We’re on Facebook and Instagram as BrainJunkPodcast and on Twitter as @MyBrainJunk. Amy and I will catch you next time with more of everything you never knew you wanted to know, and I guarantee you won’t be board.