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New 'exploding ant' species puts on a gory, goo-filled show

A new kind of exploding ant found in Borneo will simultaneously fascinate you and gross you out with its toxic self-sacrifice.

A minor worker ant raises its rear in a defensive position.

Alexey Kopchinskiy

Nature has invented some wonky defense mechanisms, but ants that explode raise the concept to a new level of horror. A type of tree-dwelling ant found in Borneo has a class of workers that sacrifice themselves to protect their colonies. An international team of researchers has now discovered a new species of these exploding ants.

The new species bears the evocative name "Colobopsis explodens." When threatened, the minor worker ant ruptures its own body, which researchers say "releases sticky, toxic liquid from their enlarged glands." The process kills the ant, but it can also kill or hamper an invading insect. Scientists nicknamed the secretion "yellow goo."

While the behavior of exploding ants has been known since at least 1916, the insects have remained largely mysterious over the decades, with no new species formally described since 1935.

Members of the research team, which consists of entomologists, microbiologists, chemists and botanists, went to Borneo to study the ants. They have since identified 15 different species of the crawly critters, which fall under the umbrella of "Colobopsis cylindrica." The researchers published their findings this week in the ZooKeys journal

The exploding minor workers aren't the only interesting ants here. The major workers of the Colobopsis explodens tribe have enlarged heads used to plug nest entrances to keep out invaders. This gives them a very sci-fi alien look.

The unusual head shape of a major worker ant is used to protect the nest.

Heinz Wiesbauer

If you absolutely must see what it looks like when an ant explodes itself, then head over to the project's website and watch the videos. They are surprisingly gory. 

Colobopsis explodens is just the start of a deeper scientific look at these mysterious insects. The researchers plan to describe more exploding-ant species in future papers, so get ready to make room in your nightmares for even more of these fascinating creepy-crawlies.

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