The Field Guide to Super Powers #6: Nitro and Camponotus saundersi

There are a handful of idioms relating to human explosions and most aren’t good. You can get so angry you blow your top, your plans can blow-up in your face and you can only bottle-up your frustration for so long before you explode. These are metaphorical eruptions but there are a handful of comic characters that do have the ability to go ka-blooey as part of their modus operandi. Perhaps most famously, is the super villain Nitro, the Living Bomb, who can blow himself to atoms and then reassemble himself. He pulled this stunt a few years ago outside a school and precipitated a Civil War in the Marvel Universe.

NitroCovers

Nitro lords it over Captain Marvel and blows-up Iron Man. All three are (c) Marvel Comics

This, of course, works as a super power as long as you can put yourself back together, but if you can’t, blowing yourself-up is a done-in-one kind of stunt. As Daffy Duck demonstrates in the clip below, the results can be spectacular…

…but it’s only good for one round of applause. Given that nature lacks a live studio audience, what would motivate a critter to self-detonate? The answer, of course, is the greater good!

Ants are social insects that live in colonies. They’re tremendously successful organisms and display a wide variety of fascinating physical and behavioral adaptations. There are farmers, soldiers, workers, architects and even ants that act as food storage units. In each ant colony a single queen lives with millions of her offspring. However, only the queen can reproduce. Why would her kids give up the ability to make babies and pass their genes onto the next generation? Many behavioral biologists think that by working to ensure the survival of their bothers and sisters, worker ants are also promoting the survival of copies of their genes into the next generation. This, for ants, may be the greater good. In that context, it’s not that surprising to find ant species with a number of bizarre, self-sacrificing adaptations, including self-detonation.

CamponotusAntCamponotus saundersi

The world of ants is a violent one. Colonies routinely seek each other out and fight territorial wars that result in devastating carnage. The Malaysian ant Camponotus saunderi will mix it up with the best of them and, if the battle should start to take an ugly turn, they will blow themselves up. To understand how, lets consider a unique aspect of their anatomy.

CSaundersiGlandsDiagram of Camponotus saundersi highlighting her absurdly large mandibular glands in blue. Modified from Maschwitz and Maschwitz, 1974.

Most ants have glands in their head associated with their mandibles, the big pinching mouthparts that ants use for cutting and chewing their food. In many ants, including C. saundersi, these mandibular glands secrete alarm chemicals that alert the colony to danger in the same way the smell of smoke might alert you to the possibility of a fire nearby. Unlike most ants, however, the mandibular glands of C. saundersi are enormous, extending from the animal’s mouth, through the thorax and into the abdomen. They are also full of sticky goo. If worse comes to worse, and the battling C. saundersi have no other choice, they violently contract the muscles of their abdomen and squeeze their mandibular glands until they pop out of their body and explode into a spray of enemy-immobilizing glue.

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Unlike Nitro, C. saundersi cannot reassemble themselves afterward. But, if they can turn the tide on their enemies they may make it possible for their genes to live on in the sisters and brothers they saved. At the very least, they go out with a bang.

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