Attack of the Exploding Ants

The exploding ants of Borneo were first described by Ulrich Maschwitz in 1974. These ants in the genus, Camponotus, would respond to even a light touch with forceps by “exploding”. The body wall would rupture and a sticky yellow “goo” ooze from the ant and glue it to the forceps. These ants are territorial and defend their arboreal nests from invader ant species. When exposed to European ants in the laboratory, the exploding Camponotus ants would grasp the invader by the leg or antenna, press its body to the head of the invader and squeeze its abdomen until the abdomen ruptured spilling glue over the eyes and mouthparts of the invader ant. The ant duo, locked in a death grip, tumble to the forest floor to be consumed by other predators.

Recent investigation by a group of scientists* determined that the mandibular gland, commonly used for digestive enzymes in most ant species, is greatly expanded in the exploding ants. The glands are abnormally large, even extending into the abdomen and filling a substantial portion of the space.

Other than their size and function, the glands in the exploding ants are not unusual. Often in evolution, a structure initially used for one purpose is used for another purpose and undergoes modification. In this case, the mandibular gland was initially used for digestion. Once ants started using the secretions for defense, the glands enlarged to their present size. The ability to “explode” or have the secretion ooze from the ants at multiple locations is more effective at gluing the ants to the invaders.

Grabbing onto a larger invader and “exploding” like a suicide bomber is an effective defense and allows one smaller defender to take out a larger invader. Apparently, ants have been conducting asymmetric warfare much longer than humans.

Camponotus Defender "Explodes" in the Face of a Larger Attacker
Image: Mark Moffett/Minden Pictures/FLPA)

*(Histology of structures used in territorial combat by Borneo’s ‘exploding ants’. Diane W. Davidson, Kamariah A. Salim, & Johan Billen. Article first published online: 24 AUG 2011
DOI: 10.1111/j.1463-6395.2011.00523. —Acta Zoologica (Stockholm) 00:1–5.)

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is a retired Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
This entry was posted in behavior, Biomaterials, Environment. Bookmark the permalink.

66 Responses to Attack of the Exploding Ants

  1. Ryan says:

    This is a great description of how one ant protects itself from danger.

  2. Anonymous says:

    It is interesting to see an ant commit a suicidal act to protect the whole.

  3. Austin says:

    The article is very interesting, but still leaves me with a few questions. Do these exploding ants essentially kill themselves when they rupture their abdomen? If they do, I find it fascinating that they would be so territorial that they would rather kill themselves and the invader than let their territory be taken over.

    • jjneal says:

      Yes they kill themselves. It protects the colony. They are genetically “programmed” to do this.

    • Brad Mullis says:

      We can’t think about a colonial or hive population in ANY way like we think about ourselves as individuals. Although on another scale completely (its fictional), the book “Enders Game” offers a great hypothetical and conceptual look at the mentality of a hive species.

  4. Wesley Helton says:

    Cool article, I probably would never have heard of these bizarre ants otherwise. I can only imagine the scenario that could take place after one explodes. Kind of a “I’m taking you with me” mentality when you think about them both becoming food for a bird or something.

  5. Tyler King says:

    A very interesting article. A smaller ant taking down a larger predator is reminiscent of the “david and goliath” story, and shows how many things in our culture is derived from nature. I recently did a speech on WW2, and this also reminds of Japanese suicide bombers, and how they are trying to protect their home. Surprisingly, it also reminds me of how a women would get married to man, effectively leaning towards the, like Wesley Helton said, “I’m taking you with me” mentality.

  6. Christabel Gutierrez says:

    I agree with many of the previous comments. If in fact these ants do die after they “explode” or secret their “goo” than why is their gland that contains the goo growing larger? The reason for evolution is to make a species better or more durable “Survival of the fittest” but how does this action, which causes the insect to die keep evolving?

    • jjneal says:

      Those colonies that are better defended survive. Those with worse defense lose out. The genes are passed from the queen to the offspring and expressed in the workers. If the genes expressed in the workers are better, they will survive and more offspring produced. If worker genes are not as good, fewer offspring will be produced.

  7. Zac Gipson says:

    When the ant explodes and attached itself to the invading ant, are they stuck in place and die of starvation? Or do other ants come to the aid of the defender and help attack the indaver to protect their colony?

  8. Daniel says:

    That takes selflessness to a whole new level. Usually it is normal for insects to cling and struggle for life, but these ants are the complete opposite always looking out for the community. It is almost like the ants are a whole. This was a very interesting and informative blog.

  9. elhombre3 says:

    I think it is very interesting that these ants give up their lives in order to save the rest of the colony. However, I wonder how effective this method is because I am sure that invading ants aren’t acting alone. So, after the first invading ant is caught the other invading ants will enter the colony and feast on the young. I would like to see these exploding ants in action; hopefully Professor Neal could bring some to class!

    • Definitely an amazing display of endurance on the exploding ant’s part. Although, I have to agree with you about the larger ants acting as a team as well. My hypothesis is that the exploding ants give off a strong smell that attracts predators quickly, this way the smaller ants can escape to defend the hive and the larger ants are left to predation while trying to attack the hive. The exploding ants are enlisting the help of larger predators to keep their hive safe. Quite an ingenious way of defending themselves, if you ask me. I also hope Dr. Neil brings some in so we can observe this behavior firsthand!

  10. Erika says:

    I think it is strange that ants commit suicide in order to help out the colony. I didn’t think that ants would have the mental capability to think and act in such a way to actually “help” the rest if its colony.

  11. Ryan Poxon says:

    I find it interesting how every living species competes to mark their territority. The exploding ant takes this one step further by commiting suicide inorder to protect the colony.

  12. Ryan F says:

    The article is very intyeresting. Im a little confused if the ants actually kill them selves in the process of killing there enimies. I feel that in order for these ants to survive they must find another way to defend them selves form bigger preditors so that there colonies can live longer rather then just killing them selves when danger aprouches.

    • BK says:

      They kill themselves. Only a specialist caste is equipped for kamikaze missions so the colony survives as a whole and passes on the genes.

  13. Max K says:

    This is a very interesting article because it shows a defense mechanism that you don’t see very much in insects. The ants are in fact “suicide bombers” that use themselves as a defense against larger predators so they can protect their colony. Is this the best way to fend off predators? Probably not because they have to sacrifice many of their own to defend themselves but it seems to work out in the end. I wish the blog talked more about what this yellow “glue” is? Why is it so sticky and effective towards larger predators?

  14. Patricia Acheson says:

    This is verry interesting article because the aunt commits suicide to protect itself/territory. I guess I don’t see that as a verry smart choice. Ifeel like this species of aunts will soon go extinct because they kill themselves from just the slightest touch.

  15. Chris Luchsinger says:

    That’s crazy!! I can’t believe these ants can kill themselves by exploding. When I think of ants I think they’re all pretty much the same, maybe some species of ants are bigger, but I figured they all act the same way. Where do these ants live?

  16. Jeff Olen says:

    I really have to agree with Chris. When I think of ants I honestly think that they are all the same. Seeing how some of these “exploding” ants take care of their territory can really be related to real life and humans. Many people will do anything to protect their territory. So it’s weird to see how we are all not so different after all.

  17. Kyle Tucker says:

    What an awesome defense mechanism. It is very interesting to see how ants are willing to kill themselves for the common good of the entire colony.

  18. Xinyi Huang says:

    Poor ants. They sacrifice themselves to protect their nests from invaders. This kind of defense leads us to think of human society. During the history, there always were some people who put themselves against the muzzles to protect their families or others. They are regarded as heroes and their stories have been told from generation to generation. Unlikely, those ants can’t be heroes and don’t have tombstones or memorial.

  19. Hay Hay says:

    It’s pretty cool the way pray an create ways to defend themselves again those that are larger then them. I have never heard of these ants and it is actually very cool, the idea that they are doing this to protect something of theirs is remarkable. That the feel is just instilled in them from birth to be so protective.

  20. Fantastic post, I wonder if there is any video footage of this in action?!

  21. Nicholis F. says:

    Intriguing article. If I were an insect and came across one of those “exploding ants”, I would be in one heck of a “sticky” situation;I never even knew these ant existed.

  22. William Kerch says:

    I wonder how these ants have survived for so long when their main form of defense is to kill them selves. i would think that it wouldn’t help them if for every threat there is probably a large amount of the population that kills them selves in order to protect their home or whatever they are protecting.

  23. Jwulf says:

    It’s very interesting that insects would sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the colony. Not many humans I know would be able to commit to this ultimate sacrifice. I wonder how their species would react to a larger predator other than another ant…

  24. trogers says:

    its kind of funny to think of an ant just exploding to protect where it leaves because when you think about it after it explodes what if another one comes then its not really protecting it . and also how are they still here there must be a surplus of exploding ants, but anyways its still cool that they like explode .

  25. Anonymous says:

    I think it’s really interesting that ants would be so aggressive in the protection of their homes that they would go so far as to be suicidal. Although this sounds like a good way to protect the whole what happens if the colony gets rough and its members just start exploding on one another?

  26. Sophie Jones says:

    This defense mechanism seems both effective and ineffective to me. It’s cool that they can just make themselves explode and kill their invaders, but wouldn’t they eventually go extinct? I get that the queen ant is always producing more offspring, but wouldn’t it get to a point where all of the ants capable of defending the colony have already exploded? I’m assuming there are certain ants that leave the colony and some ants that do not. How long does it take for an ant to grow to adult size? Very interesting article!

  27. Evan Layer says:

    The evolution of this ant over thousands of years is an extremely unique defense mechanism that has left the world with incredible survivors. This is a prime example of survival of the fittest, especially when these ants are sacrificing themselves for their colony.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Social insects behave in ways that we humans might find perplexing. Bees that die after stinging are not unlike the suicide ant. They are both protecting the colony with the queen as the reproductive member. Might it be correct to think of the colony as the unit upon which selection acts?

  29. Eric P says:

    This article was very interesting, i thought that the ants ability to take on a larger insect and defend its colony was great thing to learn. I never knew anything insect like this existed.

  30. Its interesting to see how evolution has changed the size of the Borneo ant’s mandibular gland to act as a defense to protect the colony.

  31. Autumn says:

    I have never heard of anything like this, this article was very interesting. I cant believe that they would go to those extremes to stay away from predators. Why do they have this explosion if it can be harmful to ant? You would think that they would learn not to use it if it could be harmful.

  32. Chuyao Tang says:

    In my view, this paragraph is so interesting, those ants are so amazing they can explode themselves to protect their home. I think the spirit of them is the worth to learn for people. The insect’s society is mush alike to human society .

  33. Jiaqi Huang says:

    It is a interesting article to read. we can see a lot of common facts between human and the ant society like protecting homes and group operation. A individual ant in the arboreal is like a cell in a human body, the genes of the ants are like the brian of a human body to have them operating in different positions like defending invadors. If we are looking it i this view, the behavior of self-explosion won’t seem to odd to us anymore. It’s just like the brian telling one of the arms to fight back and got hurt a little.

  34. Miles Sparenberg says:

    These “exploding ants” are fantastic! Its not everyday when you stumble upon someone or in this case some ant, that is willing to give up their own lives for the advancement of its colony, albeit, in this case, its not completely voluntary as you mentioned.

  35. Ryan Peterson says:

    This is a very interesting fact about a specific type of ant. I have heard of ants that can be infected by a fungus that breaches their brain-stem and directs the ant to go upwards then latch onto a secure surface and then the ant dies and the fungus emerges from the body. The interesting part is how other ants in an anthill will know that an ant has been infected and drag them as far as possible from the nest. It is interesting that ants will protect their fellow ants and put themselves at risk or in this case by exploding themselves.

  36. Joey says:

    It is amazing how these ants, “Explode.” I always thought of ants as the little bugs that just crawl around, minding their own business. I never realized they could, and would, take such serious measures in order to protect themselves and the colonies.

  37. Mimo says:

    There seems to be assumptions made about these ants implying intent, motive, and full knowledge of what they are doing or “committing”. An article on npr’s blog citing the professor (
    Diana) who wrote the article explained that she discovered the ants were doing this far from the nest, therefore ruling out possible connections between the act and a reasonable defense of the nest.

    Even her words implied knowledge of the outcome. I see that there is a reoccurring trend and even a consistent context for the event (danger/attack), but I don’t see all the evidence based on this info to suggest they know they will be killing their attacker if they “sacrifice” themselves. Did the ants develop reasoning skills and other cognitive abilities to predict and perceive the future outcome of their situation when their glands developed?

    All I’m saying is that unless there is a way to determine the psychological motivation here we don’t really know whether this is a sacrifice per se or just a nervous break-down in this particular breed of ant that results in death due to the enlarged gland. Right?

  38. jjneal says:

    It is a bad idea to assign “Motive” to ants or other insects. You are correct, there is no way to understand “what an ant thinks” (or a person for that matter) so motive is always difficult to ascertain.

    I prefer to limit my conclusions to observation. The ants, if approached by another species of ant will grasp it and “explode”. This result of this behavior when in close proximity to the nest clearly results in defense of the nest. The behavior may have other advantages for the ants, but that remains to be ascertained and demonstrated.

  39. termiteshq says:

    Is this dissimilar to soldier termites that take hold of a predatory insect in defense of a colony and basically commit seppuku?

  40. termiteshq says:

    Actually I answered my own question. Globitermes Sulphureus does this when defending the colony. When insects do it in this way, it’s not called hari kari or seppuku, but autothysis.

  41. Pingback: Living With Exploding Termites | Living With Insects Blog

  42. Sean says:

    you actually believe a mindless force called evolution caused this?

    You need to repent of that foolishness. God is alive and revealed Himself when He manifested in the person of Jesus Christ.

    • jjneal says:

      Evolution is a process that results from the inherent properties of all life on earth- Descent with Modification.
      Evolution is an explanation, not a belief.
      Many religious people find no conflict between their religion and evolution. Freedom of religion requires that we all respect the right of others to hold religious beliefs that differ from our own. You are entitled to your religious beliefs, but please be more respectful of the religious beliefs of people who understand and accept the evolutionary process.

  43. Pingback: Evolution of Exploding Kamizake Ants - Page 4 - Religious Education Forum

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  50. Michelle says:

    Borneo? Suicidal?

    They are Muslim ants obviously?
    Being worker/soldier ants I guess its condoms in Islamic heaven : )

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