Ants nurse hurt warriors back to health
PARIS: African Matabele ants dress the wounds of comrades injured during hunting raids and nurse them back to health, according to an “astonishing” discovery reported yesterday.
After collecting their wounded from the battlefield and carrying them back home, nestmates become medics, massing around patients for “intense licking” of open wounds, according to a study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
This behaviour reduces the fatality rate from about 80% of injured soldiers to a mere 10%, researchers observed.
The study claimed to be the first to show such nursing behaviour in any nonhuman animal.
“This is not conducted through selfmedication, as is known in many animals, but rather through treatment by nestmates which, through intense licking of the wound, are likely able to prevent an infection,” said study co-author Erik Frank.
He contributed to the research when he was at the Julius Maximilian University of Wuerzburg in Germany.
Mr Frank had also taken part in a previous study, published last year, describing the ants’ battleground rescue behaviour.
The new research focused on what happens to the injured back in the nest.
Matabeles, one of the world’s largest ant species, are fierce warriors and attack even humans with their ferocious bite.
Named after Southern Africa’s feared Matabele warrior tribe, the insects hunt termites bigger than themselves, attacking their feeding sites in column formations of 200-600 individuals.
This hunting method causes many ants to get hurt, often having their legs bitten off by termite soldiers.
In the aftermath of fighting, while some of the ants return home with their dead termite prey, others scuttle around the battlefield looking for injured colleagues.
“After the battle, injured ants call for help with pheromones,” a chemical SOS signal produced in a special gland, said Mr Frank.
Rescuers use their strong jaws to pick up the wounded and drag them back to the nest for treatment.
Astoundingly, warriors that are too severely injured signal rescuers not to bother picking them up.
Unlike peers that are less seriously hurt and lie still to make their saviours’ job easier, terminally-wounded ants struggle until rescuers give up and move on.
Megaponera ants administering treatment to an injured ant.