Ants Can Play Doctor and Treat Each Other's Wounds With Spit

Wednesday, 14 February 2018 - 6:38PM
Wednesday, 14 February 2018 - 6:38PM
Ants Can Play Doctor and Treat Each Other's Wounds With Spit
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Wikimedia Commons

Up until now, it was thought that human beings were the only species that could give each other medical aid in order to heal wounds and infections. It turns out that's not strictly true.

A new study into termite-hunting ants in sub-Saharan Africa reveals that these creatures actually provide battlefield medical treatment to their comrades by licking each others' wounds to reduce infection and promote healing. Evidence of this behavior was first spotted in a study last year, but new research has found that this activity is more involved than previously thought: ants spend hours after battles treating each other, as healthy ants take turns administering aid to the wounded.

It's not uncommon for Megaponera analis ants to clash with rival insect colonies, most notably termites - the ants are known for deliberately raiding termite nests in order to steal precious resources. More often than not, this leads to open warfare between the two species, and many ants suffer serious injuries, losing legs or antennae as they fight.

The new study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, finds that many of these injuries would be fatal were it not for the insects' practice of licking each others' wounds. The study found that the practice reduced fatalities by up to seventy percent, meaning that a lot of injured ants survive after intense battles solely because they receive medical aid before an infection can do too much damage.

This is the first time that any species apart from humans has been seen to actively administer aid to others. Many animals are capable of taking actions to promote personal healing, but it's unheard of for any creepy crawly to take actions to help save the lives of other members of their species.

According to Erik Frank, the study's lead author, it's a mistake to assume that the ants are motivated by altruism - this behavior likely evolved over millennia as something of a happy accident:

Opening quote
"These behaviors that seem to be incredibly complex have a very clear purpose. The ants don't know why they're doing what they're doing."
Closing quote

Certainly, the aim here is to serve the greater good, and if a fellow ant is beyond saving - if it's lost too many of its limbs in battle, for example - it'll be left to die alone, so that the healthy ants can focus on saving members of the colony who are most likely to be useful when they've recovered.

What's particularly fun about this story is how the ants' behavior was first discovered. It's hard to get a good look at what goes on in the animal kingdom sometimes, and Frank stumbled upon this little piece of noteworthy medical treatment by complete accident, when he drove into an ants nest with his car.

Yup, the lead author on this study made his incredible breakthrough when he accidentally ran over the animals he was studying. This is possibly one of the most beautifully poetic discoveries in recent scientific history, and he hopefully won't run over any more animals to see how they respond.

Science News