When people get hurt, others often come to their rescue with medical attention. On the other hand, this type of behavior isn’t common in the animal kingdom. Instead, it’s every man for himself.
In a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers underscore novel insight into a particularly rare exception: the African Matabele ant.
Image Credit: Erik T. Frank
What sets these ants apart from the rest of the animal kingdom? Primarily how they nurse their wounded comrades back to good health rather than leaving them to deal with their own problems. Consequently, this also reduces wound-related mortality rates in the species.
The ants tend to their wounded brethren by partaking in “intense licking” sessions. The continued licking prevents infections and keeps the open wound sanitized so it can heal properly.
"This is not conducted through self-medication, 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," elucidated study co-author Erik Frank at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.
The following video footage demonstrates how this treatment system works:
African Matabele ants fancy termites as treats. When the ants embark on termite nest raids, they encounter termite soldiers that attempt to defend the nest. The battle always leaves a handful of wounded ants behind, and they use pheromones to communicate with other ants as a cry for help.
Rescuer ants then recognize the pheromone-based signals and begin pouring in to tend to the wounded. They pick the wounded up, return them home, and start treating them with the aforementioned licking session.
It’s a rather exciting discovery because these ants are some of the first non-human life forms found to care for others in their time of need. Many questions remain about how the ants treat others’ wounds, but researchers will need to conduct follow-up studies to answer them.