Ant species uses chemical warfare to kill termites from afar

You don't want to mess with the African ant species Crematogaster striatula — and neither do other insects. This species has a built-in "gas gun" that can paralyze its enemies, giving them a secret weapon in their endless war against termites.

This particular species emits powerful, poisonous chemicals from its stinger. The worker ants emit these chemicals, telling its fellow members of the nest to join them and warning rival ants to stay away. Generally, other ants respect the venom, but the ants' archenemies, the termites, refuse to be intimidated. As researchers at France's University of Toulouse discovered, this bravado does not end well for the termites.

Uniquely, the termites don't even have to come into direct contact with the ant's stinger to be completely wiped out. Writing in PLoS ONE, the researchers describe the termites' grisly fate:

The workers defend themselves or eliminate termites by orienting their abdominal tip toward the opponent, stinger protruded. The chemicals emitted, apparently volatile, trigger the recruitment of nestmates situated in the vicinity and act without the stinger having to come into direct contact with the opponent. Whereas alien ants competing with C. striatula for sugary food sources are repelled by this behavior and retreat further and further away, termites defend their nest whatever the danger. They face down C. striatula workers and end up by rolling onto their backs, their legs batting the air. The bioassays showed that the toxicity of the Dufour gland contents acts in a time-dependent manner, leading to the irreversible paralysis, and, ultimately, death of the termites.

Of course, ants aren't the only ones who could benefit from a chemical that makes termites stand their ground, then kills them. That has all the makings of an extremely effective insecticide, and the researchers hope to isolate just what is so perfectly lethal about the ants' stingers.

Read the full paper at PLoS ONE. Image of related Crematogaster species by SouthernAnts on Flickr.