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Soldier ants rescue and treat wounded comrades

UK News | Published:

Casualty rates in termite war are dramatically reduced by insect ‘paramedics’.

A Matabele soldier ant treats a wounded comrade (Erik T Frank/PA)

A “Band of Brothers” species of warring ant has been observed rescuing injured comrades from the field of battle, carrying them to safety, and tending their wounds.

The extraordinary behaviour of African Matabele ants is thought to be unique in the animal kingdom.

It results in a dramatic reduction in casualty rates as the ants carry out high-risk raids on termite foraging sites.

The ants even displayed a form of heroism as badly injured insects too far gone to save refused to co-operate with their helpers.

German researchers made the discovery after studying violent clashes between the ants and termites in Comoe National Park, Cote d’Ivoire.

A termite fights off Matabele ants (Erik Frank/PA)

“We show organised social wound treatment in insects through a multifaceted help system focused on injured individuals. This was not only limited to selective rescuing of lightly injured individuals by carrying them back (thus reducing predation risk), but, moreover, included a differentiated treatment inside the nest.”

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Marching in long files of 200 to 600 insects, colonies of Matabele ants were found to launch their termite raids two to four times per day.

A column of Matabele ant raiders (Erik Frank/PA)

Injured ants secreted a chemical pheromone scent signal that compelled other soldiers to come to their aid.

Casualties were carried back to the nest, where their open wounds were “treated” by intensive licking, often for several minutes, the scientists learned.

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Dr Frank said: “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.”

While slightly injured ants kept still and even pulled in their remaining limbs to facilitate being carried, their badly wounded comrades struggled and lashed out wildly.

“They simply don’t cooperate with the helpers and are left behind as a result,” Dr Frank added.

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