Ants rescue fallen comrades from the battlefield for emergency treatment
A special species on ant in Africa saves its battle scarred comrades and carries them back to the nest for medical treatment, boosting survival rates.
Researchers have confirmed that if cared for by their nest-mates only a tenth of the injured ants died compared to 80 per cent if not nursed, said Dr Erik T. Frank a tropical biologist from Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Germany.
Dr Frank, who led the research on the sub Saharan African Matabele ants, believes it’s the first time any insect species has been found to dress the wounds of other individuals.
“We observed that they lick and groom the wound, and that they were able to reduce the mortality it causes,” said Dr Frank.
He said that interestingly, 80 percent survived without treatment if placed in a sterile environment, leading him to believe infections were the main cause of death and the “licking” behavior may help prevent them.
The research was published this week in the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Biological),The Royal Society’s flagship biological research journal, dedicated to the fast publication and worldwide dissemination of high-quality research
The Julius Maximilian University (also referred to as the University of Würzburg), is a public research university and one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in Germany, having been founded in 1402.
The Matabele ants suffer many casualties while laying siege to the termite colonies they eat by the hundreds while braving the potentially life-threatening bites of large soldier termites that defend the colonies.
Back in the Matabele nest, ants take turns caring for their injured comrades, gently holding the hurt limb in place with their mandibles and front legs while intensely “licking” the wound for up to four minutes at a time.
“I did not think the ants would have such a sophisticated treatment of the injured—or that it was actually necessary,” Dr Frank told National Geographic.
“This is the first real, quantitative, scientific study in that sense, which really quantifies the value of that behaviour,” he said.
“When they had fights against termites, some of the ants got injured. These injured ants called for help.”
If they’re wounded, the Matabele ants secrete what Dr Frank described as a ‘helping call’ pheromone.
Upon noticing this chemical signal, other ants rush to assist their comrades, and carry them back to the colony’s nest.
Dr Frank said the discovery could lead to a greater understanding of how social insects value individuals, and that it may open up new areas of research.
“It opens up a whole new field which we previously didn’t really acknowledge: the treatment of wounds by other individuals,” he said.
He said understanding how the ants heal could also lead to new medical treatments.
“It might potentially lead to possible antibiotics, which could be helpful in our own medical system,” he said.
“I believe there could be other species that show it, and it’s something I want to follow up.”