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07-06-2024

Video captures ants amputating and healing legs of their injured friends

You might think surgery is a strictly human affair. However, Florida carpenter ants are changing the game. They’ve perfected a unique form of ant-aid where they treat injured nestmates in the most unexpected manner.

Their idea of first aid involves either cleaning wounds or performing amputations. Interestingly, the choice of care method aligns with the type of injury at hand.

Ants treating injured mates

Erik Frank, a behavioral ecologist from the University of Würzburg, shed light on these intriguing behaviors.

According to him, this amputation behavior is one-of-a-kind in the animal kingdom. He’s the brains behind a pathbreaking study of ant kingdoms that’s stirring the scientific community.

“When we’re talking about amputation behavior, this is literally the only case in which a sophisticated and systematic amputation of an individual by another member of its species occurs in the animal Kingdom,” says Frank.

In the past, we’ve noticed wound care among ants. Some ants like Megaponera analis use special glands to treat injuries with antimicrobial compounds.

However, what sets Florida carpenter ants (Camponotus floridanus) apart is their unique strategy of using mechanical means to heal their nestmates.

Two-pronged approach

This ant-rendezvous with the medical world involves one of two methods — either wound cleaning using mouthparts or a cleaning process followed by full amputation. The choice depends on the nature of the injury.

In the study, two types of leg injuries were studied — femur lacerations and tibia abrasions. Femur injuries were treated with an initial cleanup followed by a complete amputation.

Tibia wounds, however, only received a mouth clean. Surprisingly, in both cases, the survival rate was significantly higher for ants with treated wounds.

“Femur injuries, where they always amputated the leg, had a success rate around 90% or 95%. And for the tibia, where they did not amputate, it still achieved about the survival rate of 75%,” says Frank. 

Why the difference in treatment?

But, why do ants opt for different treatments for different wounds, and how do they communicate these wishes? The researchers have a fascinating theory for this.

They believe it relates to the risk of infection from the wound and the function of different leg parts.

Muscle-filled femurs play a vital role in pumping blood (or the ant version of it, hemolymph) from the leg into the body.

However, an injury to the femur disrupts this process, slowing down blood circulation. On the contrary, the tibia, with little muscle tissue, doesn’t participate much in blood circulation.

Timing is important when ants’ treat injured mates

You’d assume that faster infections from tibia wounds would call for a full-amputation. But here’s the twist: amputation by ants takes a good 40 minutes.

This means, unless the leg is cut off immediately after infection, survival chances are dim. Hence, ants resort to intensive cleaning for tibia injuries to fight off the infection.

The ability of ants to diagnose and treat wounds based on their infection status over long periods is nothing short of incredible.

“The fact that the ants are able to diagnose a wound, see if it’s infected or sterile, and treat it accordingly over long periods of time by other individuals — the only medical system that can rival that would be the human one,” Frank says.

“But what’s the reason behind such precise care?” you ask. It’s all down to innate behavior, says evolutionary biologist Laurent Keller from the University of Lausanne.

Intriguingly, there’s scant evidence of any learning involved!

Study significance

“When you look at the videos where you have the ant presenting the injured leg and letting the other one bite off completely voluntarily, and then present the newly made wound so another one can finish cleaning process — this level of innate cooperation to me is quite striking,” says Frank.

Now, the scientist duo is exploring whether other Camponotus species and those lacking the special antimicrobial gland also demonstrate similar behaviors.

Moreover, since the injured ant permits the removal of a limb while conscious, it calls into question our understanding of pain in the ant world.

So, the next time you see an ant, remember — it might just be a tiny surgeon in disguise.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

Video Credit: Danny Buffet

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