We know that ants work together in colonies but a specific species of ants known as Megaponera Analis hunt termites together. These ferocious sub-Saharan ants march in columns that stretch up to 164 feet from their nests. That’s about “as long as Niagara Falls is tall,” explained Erik Frank, author of a study that found that these ant armies, raiding termite colonies as often as four times a day, fought intensely, losing legs and antennae. Frank noted that after the roughly 20-minute battle, that some of the ants had lost antennae or a leg or two and some were handicapped by termites stuck to them. These ants, who exhibited difficulty walking, were carried back to the nest to recover. Other more severely injured ants were left to die, according to the study.
Researchers discovered injured ants returned to battle
Along with a team of researchers, Frank, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, studied these wild colonies of M. Analis, publishing his findings in Science Advances. By marking the injured ants with acrylic paints, the team found that “in nearly all cases, they made a full recovery,” according to a 2017 NPR article. Learning to maneuver with fewer legs, along with the other ants helping to remove stuck termites, these injured ants recovered enough to return to the front line the next day.
Ants perform triage on injured comrades
In a 2018 study, Frank determined that back in the nest, the returning termites perform triage on their wounded comrades by licking their wounds, not in a metaphorical fashion but, in order to treat open wounds. This hour-long activity, according to the study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, “reduced mortality by 70 percent.”
Helping other unknown insects until this study
A Verge.com article highlighted the fact that some animals self-medicate, pointing out that some caterpillars will deliberately eat poisonous plants in order to “kill parasitic larvae growing inside them” and some parrots have been known to eat clay to get rid of toxins in their stomachs, much like dogs with upset stomachs will eat grass, in order to get rid of digestive discomfort.
Empathy not the driving force behind ant army’s actions
However, Frank said that insects treating other insects is, “completely unknown,” and that this study, “is the first example of this kind of behavior.” Now, before you go thinking how intelligent and empathetic M. Analis are, Frank said that these restorative activities have evolved over millions of years simply for the advancement of the colony. Working on the theory that helping your colleagues recover to return to hunting and killing your food source benefits the entire colony.
Not out of the goodness of their hearts
Frank said, to NPR, that it’s not too far-fetched to compare these ant rescue missions to those performed by human soldiers. “One big difference though,” Frank said, “is these ants are not doing it out of the goodness of their heart.” The researcher went on to explain that the ants aren’t acting out of empathy; they are responding to a chemical signal emitted by injured ants.
What happened to the ants that weren’t carried home?
Frank’s research team performed some experiments to discover what happened to the injured ants that didn’t get help from other ants return home. What they found was that the severely injured ants couldn’t march fast enough to keep up with the retreating army and fell behind, only to be eaten by spiders and other predators.
Ants ignore injured ants on the way to battle
University of Chicago neurologist, Peggy Mason weighed in on the possibility of empathy in the ant army study. “One reason why one might think that they’re not [empathetic]is that if they encounter that same injured ant on the way to the hunt, they ignore it,” she said. Evidently, injured ants only get rescued if they’re found after the battle.
It’s a numbers game
Mason explained it’s evident that helping injured ants benefited the colony, not just by maintaining an army. “The number of ants that are saved by this behavior,” she said, “equals the same number of ants born each day in that colony.” Returning soldiers make a “substantial contribution to the ant colony,” by rescuing the wounded ants. “That’s what drove this behavior to be selected for,” she said, “and to evolve into a stable behavior.” Mason reminded us that, “this is an army . . . And the more numerous you are, the more successful you are.”
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