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Termite-Hunting Matabele Ants Treat Wounded Comrades By Licking Them

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Watch African ants treating comrades injured on battlefield
The sub-Saharan Matabele ants rescue their wounded mates in the battlefield, bring them back to their nests, and take turns to lick the wounded legs. Does this behavior help save lives?  ( Erik T. Frank )

The Matabele ants in sub-Saharan Africa raid termite nests two to four times a day. During these dangerous hunts, some of the ants lose legs or antennas, and some die.

Life-Saving Behavior During Battle

Researchers, however, observed that the insects exhibit life-saving behavior during battle. Findings of an earlier study showed that these tiny creatures rescue their wounded comrades in the battlefield and take them to the nests.

'Rescue Me' Signals

The wounded ants send out a distress signal by excreting chemicals that can trigger other soldier ants to bring them back to the nest to recover.

Interestingly, researchers found that more than 95 percent of the ants that were brought back to the nest recover and were even able to participate in subsequent raids.

In a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B on Feb. 14, researchers showed what happens after the rescue operations. Using surveillance cameras equipped with an infrared light to see in the dark, researchers discovered how ants care for their wounded.

How Ants Treat Their Wounded Comrade

About four or five ants gather around an injured ant and take turns to lick the wounded leg for two to three minutes at a time. By licking the injured ants' severed legs, the healthy ants treat the wounds and save lives.

The treatment may seem icky if used on humans but this actually reduced mortality in ants possibly because this fights off infection.

"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," said study researcher Erik Frank, from The Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg in Germany.

Only 10 percent of those whose wounds were licked, died within 24 hours. Of those who did not receive treatment, 80 percent did not survive.

Triage

The researchers also found that the insects perform a kind of triage, the process that determines the priority of treatment based on the severity of the patient's condition.

Franks and colleagues found that the lightly injured ants behave to attract help. The wounded move slower and stumble when they are near other ants but move faster when alone.

They also cooperatively allow other ants to carry them. The heavily injured ants, on the other hand, did not call attention to themselves and were not even cooperative during rescue attempts.

"In humans, in cases where a triage system is necessary - that is, too many injured, due to a catastrophe - the decision who will receive help is made by the doctor, a top-down regulated system; in these ants, it's exactly the opposite," Frank said.

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