March 20, 2018, 11:01 a.m.View more articles
Matabele ants are found in many parts of Africa. They live in groups called colonies, with each colony made up of hundreds of ants. These ants only ever eat one thing: a type of insect called a termite. Termites also live in large groups, and this makes them more difficult to attack.
For the ants to successfully attack the termites they have to be organised. In groups of 200–500 ants, they march towards the termite nest. Then, larger ants knock down parts of the nest, and smaller ants run in to attack the termites. The termites try to defend their nest by using their large, powerful mandibles to bite the ants. This often results in ants losing legs.
An injured ant would struggle to get back to the nest safely by itself. But in 2017, researchers found that Matabele ants seek out their injured friends and carry them back to the nest. The injured ant released a type of chemical known as a pheromone into the air that told the other ants it needed help. When help arrived, the hurt ant would tuck its remaining legs in and stay still. This makes it easy for the other ants carry it back to the nest quickly.
However, scientists found out this year that the help doesn’t stop there. Once the injured ants are safely tucked back into their home nest, the other ants take turns licking the wounds constantly for up to four minutes.
Amazingly, this licking seems to heal the injured ants. The researchers found that almost all of the treated ants survived and were able to fight again. Some of the ants were even helping with the next termite attacks less than an hour after they’d been treated!
The scientists aren’t entirely sure how the licking helps, but they think that it removes dirt from the wound. The ants’ saliva might also kill some types of bacteria, which would lower the risk of infection. It’s also possible that the saliva helps seal up the open wounds, which means that the injured ant would lose less blood.
Many other species of ants leave their injured soldiers behind. Ant colonies are often so large that even if lots of its members died during battle, the colony would still be able to survive. The researchers working with the Matabele ants think that these ants look after their injured soldiers because the colonies are relatively small. In a small colony, every single ant is important. So it makes sense that they would try to rescue as many wounded ants as possible!
Imagine being able to carry your friend home! Watch The Incredible Strength of Ants to learn about how strong these insects are.
Photo credit: Dr. Erik T. Frank, University of Lausanne