Suicide Bombing Ants

On the island of Borneo lives a species of ant called Camponotus cylindricus. When it feels attacked, it sacrifices itself to defend the entire colony in a burst of selfless battle.


These ants are actually carpenter ants, living in the bases of tropical trees. When another being approaches (other insects perhaps), the ants explode releasing a toxic yellow substance that almost instantly kills themselves and the attacker. To study this behavior, ecologist Mark Moffett made a trail of honey leading to a colony…

After an hour, weaver ants along with another species of carpenter ant located the bait and started arriving at the cylindricus-occupied tree. One of them started up the trunk, but then came down again. That one would live another day. Another climbed a bit higher and attempted to walk by a cylindricus minor worker. Just as I clicked the shutter there was a splash of yellow, and both ants were immobilized in a sticky, grotesque tableau.

The photo Moffett snapped
The photo Moffett snapped

Suicidal behaviors for a cause are not the only disturbing aspect ants share with human beings. In fact, colonies often go through wars with one another over disputes of territory. Thousands upon thousands of ants all utterly devoted to destroying each other, go to force the other colony out. But they don’t stop there. After killing the majority of the opposing colony, they will kill the queen and often eat the young.

Two (Tetramorium species) ant colonies at war
Two (Tetramorium species) ant colonies at war

Perhaps even worse, several species of ant have independently evolved into the habit of taking slaves. In order to build a greater force, these ants will raid another colony for eggs. With the eggs brought into their own colony, any ants hatched will fight for the new colony instead of their own. Even going on raids for the colony when fully grown!

Ants returning from a raid (two full grown slaves can be seen to the right of the nest)
Ants returning from a raid.
Two full grown slaves (with darker abdomens) can be seen to the right of the nest.

Such extremism in handling risk is an example of how death without reproduction can be of service to queen and colony, and a reminder that anything humans concoct—even suicide missions and terrorism—probably has a parallel in nature.

-Mark Moffett

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