In the aftermath of a raid, researchers are finding evidence that the ants care for their wounded. But every once in a while, an ant gets hurt and is hauled back home to recuperate - an astonishing insectoid behaviour unto itself.
These raids, however, often come with a cost: ants with lost or crushed limbs, or even ants limping home with tenacious termites clinging to their bodies. To find their next meal, the ants bypass the well-defended termite mounds and instead send scouts into the savannah to spot termites feeding on dead plant matter under the ground.
A Matabele ant treats a wounded comrade whose limbs were bitten off during a fight with termite soldiers.
During their observations, the researchers noticed how soldier ants "licked" the wounds of other injured ants, which would last for several minutes.
The raids are rarely without casualties on the ant side.
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. 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.
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To find out what was killing the injured, untreated ants, the researchers relocated some to a sterile environment and found that only 20 percent died, indicating that infections are probably the biggest risk for injured ants. Researchers hope to conduct further investigations, but for now, the study offers a glimpse into the complicated workings of social insect colonies. "The other ant grabs it with its mandibles". Lack of treatment increased mortality by up to 80 percent within 24 hours, most likely due to infections, the researchers said. "Proceeding in long files of 200 to 600 animals, they raid termites at their foraging sites, killing many workers and hauling the prey back to their nest where they are ultimately eaten", reads the statement from the University of Wurzburg.
The scientists found that inside nests, maimed ants received aid from comrades that cleaned their open wounds with their mouthparts.
With the exception of humans, this search-and-rescue method along with providing medical help, biologists believe is a unique behavior among all other animals. From here, it can release pheromones to call for help. They are equipped with strong jaws that can injure and kill Matabele ants. As a result, the most severely injured either fail to call, or do not assume the right position to be carried home, and are left for dead.
"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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"One of the fascinating things about ant society is you can get very complex and sophisticated behaviour without any need of cognition or knowledge of what you are doing", Frank said.
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