'Anty'-biotics and triage as soldier ants save their wounded

Modesto Morganelli
Febbraio 15, 2018

Researchers from the University of Würzburg, Germany, found that the lightly injured ants would call for help by releasing a pheromone that acts as a distress signal. They're skilled raiders, sending out columns of several hundred ants to attack termite nests and drag termite corpses back to their own nests for a feast. He wanted to know what happened once the ants moved underground, so, as Christie Wilcox writes for National Geographic, he and a team of researchers at the Comoé National Park Research Station in Côte d'Ivoire created artificial nests topped with a clear cover that allowed them to peer inside the dwellings.

But once passed by, they picked themselves up and followed the pack home. If not, they don't. The severely wounded ants "simply don't cooperate with the helpers and are left behind as a result", explained Frank. As Frank tells Sample of the Guardian, "you can get very complex and sophisticated behavior without any need of cognition or knowledge of what you are doing". "There are a couple of anecdotal observations of wound treatment in primates - mother and child - but no real scientific studies that have looked at it in depth".

Enlarge / She's not heavy, she's my nest-mate. "It could also be therapeutic, so basically a medical treatment where they apply antibiotics or other potential substances for the injured ant".

Frank plans to spend his post-doctoral research at the University of Lausanne figuring that out, testing various ant glands for antimicrobial or antifungal properties. Injury and mortality among the ants occur during such combats.

He said understanding how the ants heal could also lead to new medical treatments. But it is essential to Matabele ants, which are particularly susceptible to injury. That could also be how ants know when to stop licking an injury; when the hemolymph stops flowing, it's time to stop licking and move on.

However treatment works, it's clearly effective at preventing infection, and that clearly helps ants live to raid another day.

This is extremely important to the species, as it turns out, as researchers found that 80 percent of ants who did not have their wounds licked eventually died from their wounds, and of those that received the healing licks, just 10 percent did not survive.

Enlarge / Once more unto the breach.

Dr Frank said the discovery could lead to a greater understanding of how social insects value individuals, and that it may open up new areas of research.

The African ant Megaponera analis specializes in hunting termites.

Natural selection favors this triage, medevac, and wound care behavior not because it benefits individual ants-remember that the worker ants won't breed in the first place-but because it improves the fitness of the colony.

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. That means that rescuing and treating an injured ant puts it back in the fight the next day.

"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".

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