A new study suggests that African Matabele ants share an interesting trait with human soldiers — their tendency to put their lives at risk by rescuing injured ants, and even possibly healing them by licking their wounds and effectively saving their lives. This, the researchers claim, could make them the first known animal species with such an trait, putting them ahead of certain parrot and caterpillar species that have been known to self-medicate.
According to the Botswana Wildlife Guide, Matabele ants (Megaponera analis) are named after the Matabele tribe, as they “go to war” with termites, much like their human equivalents do the same against their rivals. The ants live in extremely large colonies that could boast of as many as 20 million members, and while they primarily go after termites, the insects could also be dangerous for people to handle, as a human arm could be paralyzed after getting bitten 10 or more times.
As noted by the Verge, the new paper is not the first of its kind to show that Matabele ants could play the part of the good soldier in battle. In a separate study published last year in the journal Science Advances, a team of scientists led by University of Lausanne postdoctorate researcher Erik Frank found out that the ants rescue their injured comrades and carry them to safety, even if the danger is not imminent and the wounded insects aren’t exact at risk of dying. This time, Frank and his colleagues have published new research that details the specifics of how the ants tend to their injured comrades.
In a study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers observed the Matabele ants in action as they hunted for termites, assembling in groups of up to 600 individual ants. During these battles, about a third of the ants could have their legs bitten off by termites. But once this happens, or in any other instance in which one of the ants is injured, they release pheromones which draw other “soldier” ants to the rescue, the Daily Mail wrote.
Once a wounded ant has been rescued, healthy ants spend about an hour or so licking the injured ones’ severed legs. This, the researchers observed, improves their mortality rate by about 70 percent, as the licking treatment is believed to help the wounded ward off infections and other complications. In all, 80 percent of the ants who were licked were still alive after 24 hours, while only 10 percent of those that weren’t licked were able to survive.
During those times when a Matabele ant loses a leg, those that survive can run once again at normal speed within a day of the injury. But as study lead Frank noted, ants that lose more than one leg tend to fight off other ants and generally stop cooperating, preferring to lie in the middle of battle and wait for their imminent death.
“These ants have a very complicated medical system, one could say,” Frank observed.
“That’s what amazes me the most, normally, just to see the complexity in these insects.”
Although the new study on Matabele ants might imply that the insects are smart enough to recognize wounded ants in battle, while also marking the first possible example of such behavior in the animal kingdom, Frank stressed that these actions are more of a product of the ants’ evolution over millions of years, rather than a sign that they are “intelligent or empathic.” According to the Verge, Frank is also hoping to find out the specifics of how the licking treatment benefits wounded ants, as it isn’t sure if the treatment actually heals infections, or if it is more of a preventative measure.