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Ants recognize infected wounds and create their own antibiotics to treat them

In an amazing discovery, researchers have found that Matabele ants possess an advanced healthcare system that has never been witnessed in the animal kingdom. According to experts from the University of Würzburg, these ants can recognize infected wounds and treat them with self-produced antibiotics.

Studying ants and antibiotics

“In social insects, interactions to combat pathogens range from preventive measures like nest disinfection or allogrooming to moribund individuals leaving the nest to die in isolation or the destructive disinfection of their infected brood,” wrote the study authors. 

“But if and how social insect colonies care for injured individuals that were exposed to pathogens remains poorly understood.”

Native to regions south of the Sahara, Matabele ants have a specialized diet, feeding exclusively on termites. 

However, their hunting missions are fraught with danger, often resulting in injuries from termite soldiers’ powerful mandibles.

“Workers of the predatory ant Megaponera analis have been shown to care for the injuries of nestmates, which are common because this ant feeds exclusively on pugnacious termite species,” wrote the researchers.

“As many as 22% of the foragers engaging in raids attacking termites have one or two missing legs. Injured workers are carried back to the nest where other workers treat their wounds.”

Innovative response to infections

The risk of infection from these injuries is a significant threat to the ants’ survival. Remarkably, the Matabele ants have evolved a sophisticated method to combat this. 

The study was led by Dr. Erik Frank from Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) Würzburg and Professor Laurent Keller from the University of Lausanne.

The researchers discovered that these ants can distinguish between infected and non-infected wounds and treat their comrades with antibiotics when necessary.

“Chemical analyses in cooperation with JMU Professor Thomas Schmitt have shown that the hydrocarbon profile of the ant cuticle changes as a result of a wound infection,” said Dr. Frank.

It is precisely this change that the ants are able to recognize and thus diagnose the infection status of injured nestmates, he noted.

For treatment, the ants apply antimicrobial compounds and proteins, sourced from their metapleural gland, to the infected wounds.

This gland, situated on their thorax, secretes a concoction with 112 components, half of which are antimicrobial or aid in wound healing. 

The efficacy of this treatment is remarkable, reducing the mortality rate of infected ants by 90 percent.

Ants use antibiotics for wound care

“With the exception of humans, I know of no other living creature that can carry out such sophisticated medical wound treatments,” said Dr. Frank. 

Professor Keller also highlighted the medical significance of these findings, noting the common pathogen in ant wounds, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, is a major cause of infection in humans and is increasingly resistant to antibiotics.

The experts now aim to explore wound care behaviors in other ant species and social animals. They are interested in identifying and analyzing the antibiotics used by Matabele ants, which could potentially lead to new antibiotic discoveries for human use.

Netflix documentary

The intriguing nature of Matabele ants’ wound care has captured the attention of a wider audience. A few years ago, Dr. Frank’s research inspired a film production company to feature these African ants in the Netflix documentary “Life on Our Planet.” 

This eight-part series focuses on the evolution of life over the past 500 million years, showcasing the unique survival and adaptation strategies of various species, with Matabele ants being a prime example.

The documentary was directed by Steven Spielberg and the English version is narrated by actor Morgan Freeman. The series has been translated into German and numerous other languages. The Matabele ants appear in the fifth episode, which is called “In the Shadow of Giants.” 

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Image Credit: Erik Frank / University of Wuerzburg


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