These Ants Rescue Their Wounded Counterparts and Take Them Back Home

By Ana Verayo, | April 13, 2017

After a raid, Matabele ants carry their injured mates back to their nest. (Erik Frank)

After a raid, Matabele ants carry their injured mates back to their nest. (Erik Frank)

Scientists have discovered a unique species of ants that can rescue their fellow ants when they are wounded and take them back home to their nest to recover from the battlefield. Ants are often thought of as a single entity and individuals are almost non-existent.

The Matabele ants can be found in the southern Sahara where they hunt and prey on termites. A group of 500 ants can raid and bring two to four termites a day, dragging them back to the nest to feast upon. The bigger ants' mission is to invade the termite mound so the smaller ants can grab the panicking termites.

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Soldier termites have also evolved giant jaws to defend such ant raids, and they can break off legs and antennae of the Matabele ants. A Matabele ant can release a pungent pheromone that is used to ask for help from the others. The ant victim instantly curls into a fetal position and is then carried by the others back to the safety of the nest. 

 

According to the author of the study, Erik Frank from Würzburg University, this is the first time that ants or invertebrates have been observed displaying this special type of behavior. This discovery is very surprising since ants are known to act selflessly and are not considered to be individuated. Ants can also perform suicidal acts. However, in this study, Frank said he and his colleagues did not expect them to show much concern for an individual.

Since injured ants move slower, one-third of them die from exhaustion or are eaten by predators. This also means that one out of five ants in the Matabele raiding group suffer from a long-term injury.

Researchers estimate that when these ants rescue each other, this can help their colony grow larger by a third, as opposed to leaving their wounded ones on the battlefield. "When you do the math, this makes perfect sense for the Matabele colony," Frank adds.

This new study was published in the journal, Science Advances. 

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