Saw this the other day in the Science Section of the New York Times.
Now it goes without saying that I love exploding insects as much as the next guy, so here goes…
According to the article by Sindya N. Bhandoo, science writer, the termites’ suicide mission is a sophisticated one, involving a backpack full of blue crystals and a substance that joins with them to make a poison. But these are not terrorists or agents of espionage; they are aging worker termites of the species Neocapritermes taracua.
The termites, which are found in French Guiana, have an external structure that stores blue crystals that develop as they age. When a worker is attacked, its body wall ruptures, and an internal gland secretes a fluid that mixes with the crystals. This mixture is toxic to the attacker, said Yves Roisin, an evolutionary biologist at Free University of Brussels.
“When they are young they are all white,” Roisin said. “And when they get older their mandibles also wear down, so they are probably less efficient for feeding, but they develop the crystals for defense.”
Dr. Roisin and his colleagues report their findings in the current issue of the journal Science.
They initially noticed that some of the termites they were studying had blue spots at the junction between the thorax and abdomen. The blue spots, they discovered, are copper-containing protein crystals and are found only on older termites.
(Explosive backpacks in old termites)
Now the researchers would like to determine what the secretion from the internal gland contains.
“It’s difficult to get the pure secretions from inside the body,” Dr. Roisin said. “We are also trying now to understand how this behavior evolved within this termite species, because there are other related species that don’t explode.”