Monday, July 30, 2012

Termites can act as 'suicide bombers' against intruders

Suicide by blowing yourself up has become increasingly popular in the last decade, sadly. Most of us would say only certain, confused people would do such a thing, but surprisingly, such behaviour can also be found elsewhere in the animal world. An international team of researchers studied termites and found that old workers defended their lair against intruders by 'blowing' themselves up.

It may sound surprising, but the scientists found that termites carry a bomb with them. It consists of a protein called hemocyanin carried under the skin: it is comparable to our own hemoglobin, which transports oxygen in the blood. In termites, blue-coloured hemocyanin can be mixed with substances found in saliva, creating something toxic. These toxins can be released by rupturing of the body wall, which obviously kills the termite in the process.

Scientists showed that termites mixed hemocyanin with salivary compounds, and consequently released the toxic mixture when their nest was intruded. They also showed the produced toxin was able to paralyse and kill 'foreign' termites, making it an effective weapon, albeit a suicide bomb. Effectively, rupturing the body wall releases a sticky droplet of poison, which means it is not a dramatic explosion as frequently seen on tv.

The size of the hemocyanin-containing pouch, carried on the back, was found to increase with age. There is an explanation for that: older workers become less able to gather food, and are less effective with their jaws, in order to defend the nest. It is therefore, relatively, logical that they would sacrifice themselves by committing suicide in order to kill intruders. Still, it is pretty dramatic that nature would come up with such a solution for defensive purposes.
There are some blue patches visible, containing the hemocyanin.

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