Each day in sub-Saharan Africa, a bloody battle rages. This never-ending war has killed thousands, perhaps millions, and left many scarred for life. In the middle of this carnage is a group of brave soldiers who risk everything to pull injured comrades out of harm’s way so they can receive much-needed medical attention.
But these brave soldiers will never receive any medals, parades or commendations for their heroism. They belong to a group of warrior ants, a species called Megaponera analis, termite-hunting ants that scientists say not only rescue injured comrades, but also treat their wounds. The survival rate among the injured in this combat is remarkable — up to 90 percent. These findings were published in the Feb. 14, 2018 issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
M. analis live in colonies that average nearly 1,000 members. The ants wage war on termites, raiding their nests and dragging the dead back behind the lines as a source of food. These raids, however, often come at a heavy price. The termites bite and crush the ants, ripping off limbs and snapping off heads.
Erik Frank, a scientist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, has studied these ants and seen the two insects do battle at a research station in the Comoé National Park, one of the largest protected areas in West Africa, in northern Côte d’Ivoire. He would watch the ants drag the injured back to their nest, but because the ants make their homes underground, it was difficult to divine exactly what happened next.
So Frank and his team set out to discover what was happening inside the nest. First, they captured entire ant colonies and squirreled them away in artificial nests. They then hooked up infrared cameras to keep tabs on the insects. The scientists then captured termites and allowed the ants to stage a raid. Many ants were gravely injured during the melee. Many lost limbs. Their able-bodied comrades responded by staging a battlefield triage, separating the gravely wounded from the slightly wounded.
The seriously injured — those who lost at least five limbs — often died on the battlefield, because, as the researchers noted, they did not seem to want to be helped. Those who had been badly bludgeoned bent and distorted their mangled bodies, making it difficult for their brothers-in-arms to carry them to safety. Those whose wounds were less serious, however, allowed themselves to be cared for.
Once back at the nest, the healthy ants set up an aid station, where they tended to the wounded, licking their injuries. Ants who did not receive this treatment had an 80 percent chance of dying within 24 hours after the battle. Those who were treated had a survival rate of up to 90 percent and lived to fight another day, to the benefit of the whole community. Frank and his team theorize that the licking saves lives by preventing the onset of infection.