Although this is common among these insects, researchers from Germany's University of Würzburg conducted a study which sheds light on a special search-and-rescue technique which administers medical help for other wounded ants.
Matabele ants, which are native to sub-Saharan Africa, send out several raiding parties every day to hunt down their favorite meal: termites. The severely wounded ants "simply don't cooperate with the helpers and are left behind as a result", explained Frank. "Thus 1 percent of the colony is responsible for the success of the other 99 percent".
Researchers have learned that a species of ant saves its wounded comrades and transports them back to the nest for medical treatment.
Lightly injured ants make it obvious they need help.
"Losing one or two ants each day would be quite significant, so they really have to find ways to reduce the mortality in that sense", Frank said.
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A Megaponera analis ant carrying an injured comrade. He said the ants literally lick the wounds of their nestmates to help them heal. Do other ants engage in similar rescuing behaviors?
The heroic behaviour of the African Matabele ant is thought to be unique in the animal kingdom.
"The remaining part of the cut limb was held upwards and nest-mates carefully held the injured limb in place with their mandibles and front legs; this allowed them to intensely lick directly into the wound for up to four minutes at a time", Frank and his colleagues wrote in their paper.
This grooming likely removed dirt from the injuries and may have also applied antimicrobial substances to the wounds. "It wasn't until I had better-resolution videos that I was sure this was an intentional treatment of a wound".
To find out what was killing the injured, untreated ants, the researchers relocated some to a sterile environment and found that only 20 percent died, indicating that infections are probably the biggest risk for injured ants. But we do know that if they don't receive the treatment, 80% die within 24 hours.
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Natural selection favors this triage, medevac, and wound care behavior not because it benefits individual ants-remember that the worker ants won't breed in the first place-but because it improves the fitness of the colony.
The injured ants all secreted a chemical pheromone scent that compelled other soldiers to come to their aid.
And badly-injured ones sacrifice themselves for the cause by refusing to co-operate with rescuers. "It's very simple, but it enables the ants to triage the injured". The individual ant does not know why it treats the injured (to prevent an infection), or why the heavily injured ant does not call for help (because it would not be of use in the future).
While observing ants in Comoe National Park in Ivory Coast, the scientists learned that wounded give out a distress signal by excreting a pair of chemicals.
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"Roughly a third of the colony have lost a limb at one point, so if they didn't rescue them then many would be killed on the return journey", says Frank. Further research on this and other species may help shed light on the evolution of rescue behavior and on the behavior of social insects.