Monster of the Week: Thunder of the Three Storms

"I don't think he's gonna stop!" 20th Century Fox

Venture into the domain of Lo Pan and you'll encounter a netherworld of the darkest magic. Here the Ultimate Evil Spirit plots his reconquest of the physical universe -- and he has more than a few minions at his command.

(20th Century-Fox/Getty)

It's a place where beholders keep vigil over underworld tunnels, bestial yeren haunt the shadows and "many unnatural people roam free." That last category would certainly seem to include the sorcerers who call themselves "The Three Storms." One commands lighting, another dances on the wind... and then there's Thunder.

Thunder's skill set might seem rather mundane in comparison to his fellow magic-users, at least at first. When not massacring gang members in the streets of China Town, he mainly gives guided tours of the Wing Kong Import-Export Trading Company, interrogates interlopers and attends to his master. But Thunder possesses one more notable skill: When the going gets tough, he inflates his body and explodes in a burst of green goo and chunks.

At first this might seem nonsensical, but it all crystallizes when we look to natural world biology...

Autothysis in Little China

It's all a matter of autothysis, the process by which a natural-world organism destroys itself via the internal rupturing -- or explosion -- of an organ or gland that ruptures the skin. It's a purely muscular exercise, caused by deliberate contractions around the engorged tissue.

While certain "unnatural people" in Lo Pan's underworld seem to boast this adaptation as well, it's mostly the domain of termites and ants -- where a single act of explosive, suicidal altruism by a sterile worker can help turn back an invasion.

First, consider the carpenter ant Camponotus saundersi of Malaysia and Brunei. According to research entomologist Steven Cook, the ants' bodies are riddled with poison sacks. When attacked, they constrict and rupture the sacks, forcing sticky poison out their mouth, anus and through the exoskeleton. They die, but send quite a message in the process.

Termite Arms Race

Termites take this strategy even further. Autothysis evolved independently in a number of species and we can actually fathom the evolutionary process by noting the varying levels of lethality and toxicity. According to the journal Nature, some termites simply defecate on their enemies, but others adapted to shower enemies with filth by squeezing their abdominal muscles till the excrement bursts out through thin portions of the abdominal wall.

Some termites also evolved poison sacks, much like those of the Malaysian carpenter ant, to add a little toxicity to the mix. The termite globitermes sulphureus exudes a yellow substance that hardens rapidly to trap enemy ants and termites -- and it also contains a pheromone to call in more soldiers.

N. taracua. Note the blue deposits.

But the termite Neocapritermes taracua stands at the forefront of the Autothysis arms race. This species' workers grow abdominal sacks of toxic blue crystals throughout their lives, but these "explosive backpacks" are most pronounced in elderly workers. Their mandibles are dull and useless, but their swollen poison pouches are rich and read to rupture.

That's where their value to the termite colony comes into play. When enemy termites or ants bite into their bodies, the blue crystals combine with salivary secretions to produce a deadly chemical weapon.

These tactics all make for particularly effective defensive tactics within the confined tunnels of an ant or termite colony. Like the battle sorcerer Thunder, they are eager to rupture their bodies in a toxic explosion if it serves the good of the group -- or destroys those who would do their master harm.

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.