Researchers have learned that a species of ant saves its wounded comrades and transports them back to the nest for medical treatment.
It is the first time, say scientists, that insects have been found to demonstrate "highly effective organised social wound treatment".
"This is the first real, quantitative, scientific study in that sense, which really quantifies the value of that behaviour", he said.
This strikingly unusual behavior raises the survival rate for injured ants from a mere 20 percent to 90 percent, according to new research published February 13 in the journalProceedings of the Royal Society B.
Basically, Matabele ants are at a high risk of injury.
Observations of the termite-hunting Matabele ant have revealed healthy insects will act as stretcher bearers to bring injured members of a nest back to safety for life-saving treatment.
The researchers then staged raids between the ants and captive termites, observing how the ants responded to heavily injured ants with five limbs crushed or amputated versus lightly injured ants with only two lost or damaged limbs. "These injured ants called for help". The wounded move slower and stumble when they are near other ants but move faster when alone.
Helpers don't carry their injured nest-mates home out of compassion or loyalty-ants don't have the cognitive ability to feel those things-instead they do it because chemical cues prompt them to pick up injured ants instead of dead termites.
"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. However, they are not immortal. "But we didn't know what was going on inside the nest", he said.
Injury to an ant's limb (L) and a similar wound one hour after treatment.
A video by Erik T Fran shows how ants work to treat their injured colleagues. "The other ant grabs it with its mandibles". This licking goes on for a few minutes.
And badly-injured ones sacrifice themselves for the cause by refusing to co-operate with rescuers.
It's likely that all that licking helps clean dirt out of the open wounds, and the helpful ants may even be applying an antimicrobial substance of some sort.
They found that in the vast majority of cases, severely injured ants were left to die on the battlefield.
Another major finding of the study was that Matabele ants won't just save any injured nestmate.
And even when Frank and his colleagues applied the pheromone to severely injured ants, their wild flailing made them too hard to pick up and carry, so the would-be helpers eventually gave up and walked away.
"The first time I observed it was actually an accident - I accidentally drove over one of the raiding columns of the ants with my vehicle".
"I am always amazed and in awe of the behavioral complexities ant societies are able to show without any type of central organization or consciousness. [They were] basically only rescuing the ones that were worth saving". The termites fight back, and their powerful jaws can administer lethal bites, so Matabele ants frequently lose one or more limbs.
Either way, the behavior is exciting to see because it's extremely rare to observe any individual animal treating another's wounds in any species, Frank said.
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