Last updated February 14, 2018 at 2:50 pm
By carrying injured comrades back from termite mound raids and licking their wounds, African Matabele ants decrease fatalities of the injured ants from 80 per cent to 10 per cent.
“Medic” behaviour could be unique
A research team from Germany has just described this behaviour as potentially unique in the animal kingdom – and certainly, no other insects are known to tend wounds.
This species of ant raids termite mounds up to four times a day in groups of up to 600 insects. They capture and kill worker termites, and bring them back to the nest to eat.
But the termites don’t give up without a fight, often biting off the ants’ limbs.
Ants that have lost or damaged only a few limbs move slowly or even lie still, pull in their remaining limbs, and excrete a chemical substance. This attracts their fellow soldiers, who pick them up and carry them back to the nest.
Injured ants self-select for treatment
Meanwhile, ants who are severely injured are still team players. They struggle and lash out so that healthy ants can’t possibly waste energy rescuing them.
Back at the nest, the healthy ants lick the injured ants’ open wounds for several minutes.
According to researcher Erik T. Frank “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.”
Without receiving this wound-tending behaviour, 80 per cent of the injured ants die. After tending though, only 10 per cent die.
Next, the researchers hope to investigate how the ants know how long to tend the wounds for, and whether the behaviour has an infection preventative or wound healing effect.
This research was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.