Matabele ants love to hunt down termite colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, attacking and eating their prey by the hundreds. When an ant soldier is injured on the battlefield, it gets carried by other ants back to the nest. But myrmecologist Erik T. Frank wondered what happened next. So Frank and other researchers built nests with clear covers to watch, and they observed a kind of triage system where the ants cared for their injured comrades, licking wounds and nursing the wounded back to health -- the first documented example of a non-human animal providing medical care.
First aid for ants, lickety split:
- The researchers discovered that the ants take turns caring for their injured, gently holding injured limbs in place with mandibles and front legs. The licking lasted for as long as four minutes at a time.
- “We don’t know if they are just removing dirt from the wound or applying an antimicrobial substance to fight off an infection,” Frank said. About 90 percent of the treated ants recovered.
- Frank’s earlier research revealed that when Matabele ants are wounded, they release a “help pheromone” that signals their distress to other ants and leads to rescue.