Lifestyle & Belief

Termites explode toxic goo as defense when they age


A termite mound catches the evening sun in the Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya.


Dan Kitwood

A particular species of termite sends its aging workers off with a bang, their blue "backpacks" exploding on a suicide mission to defend the colony.

The species, Neocapritermes taracua, found in French Guiana, sports an external structure that houses blue crystals which develop as the termites age, according to The New York Times.

When an aging worker termite is attacked, the body wall breaks, releasing a fluid that mixes with the crystals, creating a toxic mixture.

The toxic goo sticks to intruders and corrodes their bodies, the BBC reported.

The research, published in Science journal on Friday, shows that though aging termites are less able to perform their duties as they age, the crystals allow them to be useful in defending their colony, the BBC reported.

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The BBC noted that many termite species defend their colonies with an altruistic suicide known as "autothysis," and in some, workers join "soldier" termites in acts of suicidal defense.

Prof. Yves Roisin told the BBC, "My PhD student, Thomas Bourguignon, was studying termite community ecology and collecting species when, casually, he found something really special."

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Researchers measured the age of the termites by how worn down their mandibles were, and the larger the blue crystals, the more blunt its mandibles were, according to LiveScience.

"(Among) such insects of course the individual doesn't really count or it counts by the work it can actually do for the colony, and when they are old and probably less efficient they are more likely to sacrifice themselves," said Roisin.

This species' defense is unusual in that it is a two-component system, said Roisin. So far, this is the only species which exhibited such an external structure, said researchers.