'Monster Science' Takes on Exploding Termites in Little China

Monster Science: Exploding Termites in Little China HowStuffWorks

John Carpenter's 1986 film "Big Trouble in Little China" bubbles over with influences from Hong Kong cinema and Chinese folklore. It's a world of sorcery, kung fu, street gangs, monsters and "many unnatural people." 

In one of the film's most iconic scenes, one of those "unnatural people" demonstrates his ability to inflate his body like a balloon and explode in a hail of chunks and goo. If you watched the video above, you had the pleasure of seeing it again. The scene is crazy and ridiculous. It's also surprisingly reflected in the world of real-life biology.

Why would evolution produce a creature that explodes like a cartoon character? It just doesn't seem to make any sense, unless you look to the altruistic world of eusocial insects. That's where we find nature's gut-busters: in termite and ant colonies, where a little toxic self-sacrifice can stave off any invasion.

Specifically, we're talking autothysis, the muscular process by which an organism ruptures an organ or gland that consequently ruptures the skin. Depending on the species, the explosion might shower the invader with feces, sticky goo or an outright toxin, but the message is always clear. 

And so that's the angle Dr. Anton Jessup explores in this episode of "Monster Science" — one in which an exploding kung-fu sorcerer is not unlike a rupturing Neocapritermes taracua termite, sacrificing itself for the good of its colony and royal master.

Not ready to leave the company of Dr. Jessup just yet? We've included his musings on Cenobites and mummies below for your enjoyment.