These Might Be the Only Non-Human War Medics

Researchers observe Matabele ants licking wounded warriors back to health
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 14, 2018 9:35 AM CST

A species of African ant lives a life so fierce that it's become expert at wartime triage. In fact, the behavior exhibited by Matabele ants marks the first time that non-humans have been observed "systematically nursing their wounded back to health," per National Geographic. Researchers lay it out in a new study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: The ants regularly raid termite colonies, and many of the ant soldiers end up with injured or even lost limbs in the process. At that point, the wounded ants send out pheromones that amount to a call for help, explains the Guardian. They go still as other ants carry them back to the colony, where the triage takes place. Other ants take turns intensely licking the wounds, with remarkable success—90% of injured ants who received this care survived, while 80% of those blocked from receiving help in the study died.

"We don't know yet if the ants are just cleaning the wound and removing debris, as we do with our wounds to prevent infection, or if they are also applying antimicrobial substances with their saliva," says lead researcher Erik Frank of Switzerland's University of Lausanne, per New Scientist. One intriguing find: Ants who were grievously wounded—those who lost multiple limbs, for example—didn't send out calls for help on the battlefield, perhaps knowing it would be futile, or didn't assume the correct leg-tuck position to be transported back to the colony when "medic" ants did arrive. Only those with lesser injuries were helped. And a funny find: The researchers say lightly injured ants sometimes behaved "more injured" than they actually were, maybe in an attempt to get a lift home. But once passed by, they picked themselves up and followed the pack home. (Behold the world of mutant ants.)

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