How Matabele Ants Help Wounded Comrades Survive By Licking Them

How Matabele Ants Help Wounded Comrades Survive By Licking Them

When the battle is done the victors head home, their march broken only to gather the wounded, who are hauled back to base for life-saving treatment.

Erik T. Frank, who led the research on African Matabele ants, believes it's the first time any insect species has been found to dress the wounds of other individuals.

"Since the colony has a relatively small birth rate of only 10-14 ants per day, this high number of injuries per day would be very costly for them if they wouldn't save the injured", Frank told Agency France-Presse.

That's when these ants showcase qualities of friendship and care.

"It's the first time this type of behavior has been described in insects - treating the wound of another individual", Frank said.

African Matabele warring ants displayed heroism by heading back into risky situations - such as termite foraging sites - to carry wounded ants to safety and even treat their wounds. The ants swarm termite feeding grounds in armies of between 200 and 600 soldiers. Ants with two lost limbs, on the other hand, curled up into easy-to-carry balls and let themselves be taken home.

Rescuers use their strong jaws to pick up the wounded and drag them back to the nest for treatment. During these unsafe hunts, some of the ants lose legs or antennas, and some die.

The discovery was made after the scientists studied violent clashes between the ants and termites in Comoe National Park, Ivory Coast. They noticed that ants returning from a hunt performed a swift triage on any casualties they encountered.

To find out, the team collected whole ant colonies and kept them in darkened artificial nests in the national park's research station. "The other ant grabs it with its mandibles".

Dr Frank said: 'We suppose that they do this to clean the wounds and maybe even apply antimicrobial substances with their saliva to reduce the risk of bacterial or fungal infection'. How do they know when to stop dressing the wounds?

Ants that have lost five or more of their legs were seen to lash out and flounder until their comrades stopped trying to save them.

Injured ants secreted a chemical pheromone scent signal that compelled other soldiers to come to their aid.

Casualties were carried back to the nest, where their wounds were "treated" by intensive licking.

Dr Frank said it's unclear exactly how this licking helps. Now, it's clear that the ants get extra TLC after being saved from the battlefield.

Lightly injured ants sometimes over-egged the pudding, over-emphasising their injuries when they were near their nest-mates. But in M. analis, colonies aren't that large, and only a dozen or so baby ants are born each day, Frank said. "When they had fights against termites, some of the ants got injured". Or it might be a combination of those reasons, said Frank, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lausanne.

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