Warring Matabele ant soldiers 'retrive injured from battlefield'

Close up of a Matabele ant tending to the wounds of a comrade

When the battle is done the victors head home, their march broken only to gather the wounded, who are hauled back to base for life-saving treatment. The Matabele ants are very strong, and will form rows of 200 to 600 ants that raid termite mounds.

Any uninjured ant seems capable of providing the licking treatment - there's no indication of dedicated ant "medics", Frank said - but it's not yet clear whether the treatment prevents infections or actively treats them.

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.

Interestingly, the decision on which ant will live and which one will die is made by the wounded ant itself. Scientists say this is a rare find in the animal world.

Matabele ants aka Megaponera analis are known to feed on bigger termites three to four times in a day.

African Matabele ants kill larger termites.

Seeing such a sophisticated medical system in ants "helps us reflect on our own rescue and medical systems", Frank said.

The raids are rarely without casualties on the ant side. The termites fight back, and their powerful jaws can administer lethal bites, so Matabele ants frequently lose one or more limbs. However, some critically injured ants refused to allow themselves to be rescued. However, both types of testing were done at the Comoé National Park Research Station in Ivory Coast. They noticed that ants returning from a hunt performed a swift triage on any casualties they encountered.

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The injured ants all secreted a chemical pheromone scent that compelled other soldiers to come to their aid. He also wants to understand how the ants are able to pinpoint the injury-or tell each other where it hurts.

To study the insects more closely, the researchers moved six colonies into artificial nests at the national park's research lab.

Injury to an ant's limb (L) and a similar wound one hour after treatment. "We suppose that they do this to clean the wounds and maybe even apply antimicrobial substances with their saliva to reduce the risk of bacterial or fungal infection", Erik Frank, the lead author of the study explains.

Franks and colleagues found that the lightly injured ants behave to attract help.

When help finally arrives, the injured ants pull in their legs and keep still, making it easier to carry them back to the nest for treatment. "These injured ants called for help". Now, it's clear that the ants get extra TLC after being saved from the battlefield.

For the purposes of the study, the researchers conducted some experiments in the field, ones that included severely injured ants. Ants that lost extremities during battle make up roughly 5 percent of their colonies, but could run about as fast as healthy ants, which suggests that rescuing injured ants benefits their colonies.

The survival rate of the injured ants is 20 percent without the treatment and 90 percent with it, according to the researchers from the University of Wurzburg, who published their findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

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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