Weird Science: Exploding Ants

There’s a term for it: Autothysis. Basically it means some gland inside an organism explodes, rupturing the skin and releasing the organism’s inner bliss as well as some toxic green slimy stuff.

So far only termites and ants have this handy capability. It’s apparently the most effective way to protect the nest from intruders. The insect explodes releasing poisons to their opponent, killing both the exploder and explodee.

I think the termites and ants learned this trick from each other, actually. I mean don’t termites encroach on ants’ territory and vice versa? Who else are they battling? I’m picturing all out warfare between these two groups over some hill in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The soldiers are exploding on the left, on the right, in front, and behind. Bits of their sticky selves cling to the grasses on the smoky battlefield. The smell is horrendous, the cries of the wounded heart-wrenching. The fight rages on until one poor, half-crumpled ant with a bloody bandage over its right antenna is left to plant the flag. Another colony survives. Oh the insectity!

The best photo I found on this phenomenon was the one above; it’s not obvious to me who is exploding and who is getting slimed. The black ant looks most like a carpenter ant, and since it’s a certain species of carpenter that displays this behavior, I assume the little red guy is the one getting blasted. It really doesn’t look like either of them has exploded.

In my search for information on this curiousity, I came across the website of an expert on ants: Mark W. Moffett. That’s his photo up there. He’s got a book out called “Adventures Among Ants.” And he’s all over the place. Scientific American, Life Magazine. He even got a mention on Jon Stewart’s show. I guess ants are progressive, though they seem downright militaristic to me.

I invite you to peruse his site. It’s fascinating, filled with little tidbits. Like how ants invented slavery long before humans ever did. Which is fitting, since they are also agrarian. Somebody’s got to pick the cotton.

In perusing his site, I found a link that led me to a quiz about ants. I did poorly (I only got 3 out of 10 right). Guess I should buy his book, eh? It wasn’t all a waste of time, though. I Found out that an ant can live for two weeks after its head’s been been cut off. I’ll be bringing that one up at the next cocktail party I get invited to.

It’s a fun site. Help yourself:

I don’t think I’m going to hate carpenter ants anymore. I’m sure they’re happily munching through my timbers as I write this, but from now on I think of them as entertainment. Next time I see one scrabbling across the bathroom floor, I’ll start tickling it with a pencil to see if it’ll explode.

Just kidding. I’m a progressive.

Sue Lange‚Äôs latest ebook, Tritcheon Hash, is full of lapses of logic and weird science. “It’s a wild, good read.” Get your copy right here at Book View Cafe.

This essay was first posted first on December 5, 2011 at the Singularity Watch blog.



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