Ants have an incredible capacity to work together for the good of the collective, but a freshly discovered species shows just how far they are willing to go. Colobopsis explodens has been observed in the rainforests of southeast Asia making the ultimate sacrifice, blowing their bodies apart in an attempt to stop predators in their tracks.

Our knowledge of exploding ants can be traced back to more than a century ago, with various species recorded in literature in the early 1900s. But mystery has surrounded their existence for decades, with no new species discovered since 1935.

And then a research team made up of entomologists, botanists, microbiologists, and chemists from Austria, Thailand and Borneo ventured into the forests of southeast Asia to find some fresh evidence. The scientists carried out five separate 30-day-long trips from 2014 to 2016, and saw the species Colobopsis explodens in action at multiple nesting sites, ranging from the forest floor to the canopy.

The team found that when these ants are threatened by a predator, the minor workers tear their bodies apart. Unsurprisingly, this results in immediate death, but rupturing their body wall releases a toxic, sticky liquid from their glands that then either kills the enemy or fends them off from the rest of the colony.

Other members of the colony were also seen exhibiting peculiar behaviour. Where the minor workers blow themselves apart, it appears the major workers' responsibility is to use their larger, plug-shaped heads as barricades to keep intruders out of the nest.

As the first exploding ant described since 1935, Colobopsis explodens has now been selected as the model species for the group, meaning it will be used as a foundation for further exploration of these fascinating creatures. The scientists expect a number of new exploding ant species to be described in the near future.

The research was published in the journal Zookeys.

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