African Matabele ants observed carrying injured comrades from the battlefield

Watch: How Matabele Ants Help Wounded Comrades Survive By Licking Them

A unique species of soldier ant braves the battlefield to rescue stricken comrades, scientists have found.

Not a heroic scene from the second world war, but the daily grind for African Matabele ants, which leave their nests in the hundreds to launch raids on feeding termites - and risk life and limb in the process.

"This is the first real, quantitative, scientific study in that sense, which really quantifies the value of that behaviour", he said. Researchers published their findings in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Dr Frank began observing Matabele ants while working in Africa. "When they had fights against termites, some of the ants got injured". The injured ants play the patient role to the hilt by remaining immobile for a long duration.

"The ants were selective in who they picked up", says Frank.

Once they have been hauled back to the nest, the comrades carrying them proceed to lick their wounds.

"I do feel that it has some parallels with military medics", he said.

Frank said it's possible that other ant species also exhibit the same behaviors.

"They were able to reduce the mortality rate by roughly 30 per cent".

"What we show, for first time in the animal kingdom, is a proper treatment focused on a wound", said Erik Frank, a behavioural ecologist at the University of Wurzburg. "But we didn't know what was going on inside the nest", he said.

During their observations, the researchers noticed how soldier ants "licked" the wounds of other injured ants, which would last for several minutes. Researchers also believe that if they can't stand up, they can't release the rescue-signal chemical.

Interestingly, the decision on which ant will live and which one will die is made by the wounded ant itself. There, scientists captured remarkable footage of ants caring for others with missing limbs.

A species of ant has become the first known non-human animal to tend the wounds of its fellows.

"This behaviour seems to be vital to prevent an infection of the wound, and for the survival of the injured ant". Frank showed that coating dead ants in pheromone summoned helpers, but the ants soon moved on when their fallen comrades failed to tuck into the right position.

"It could be just a prophylactic treatment". The individual ant does not know why it treats the injured (to prevent an infection), or why the heavily injured ant does not call for help (because it would not be of use in the future).

These same ants, a species called Megaponera analis, were observed past year bringing their injured back to the nest, but no one knew what happened to the wounded ants after that, said study leader Erik Frank, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

He said the insects appeared to have some sort of "triage" system, where ants decided in the field which individuals were able to be saved.



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