As It Turns Out, There’s Another Terrestrial Species That Can Heal Wounds and Perform Surgical Amputations: Ants

  • Scientists previously believed that only humans performed surgical amputations to save individuals.

  • However, some ants also do this after a thorough medical evaluation.

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Ants are truly fascinating creatures. These tiny insects sometimes sneak into your home or form trails when you take a walk in the countryside. They’re part of perfectly structured colonies, with an unimaginable number of ants on Earth and many different species. They’re amazing creatures not just because there are 20 billion of them in the world but because they’ve been inhabiting the planet for millions of years. Their time on Earth proves one thing: their ability to adapt to their surroundings.

And, as it turns out, scientists have recently discovered that adaptation involves the implementation of war surgery, a practice they previously thought that only humans performed.

Saving Ant Ryan. In 2017, Erik Frank, a researcher from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland known for his work on ants, published a groundbreaking study that shed new light on the behavior of social insects. Many believe that social insects act in the colony’s best interest as a whole but that they also do that for one of them in particular. No, we’re not talking about the queen.

The ant Megaponera analis lives in Africa and feeds on termites. It only eats termites, which isn’t unusual. However, in his research, Frank observed that scouting parties sometimes didn’t return with termites to the anthill but with live ants of their own species. This puzzled the researcher, and he wondered why they did this. At the end of the day, those injured ants had one less antenna or were missing a leg.

Math. In an experiment on ants (which was quite cruel, to be honest), Frank randomly chose 20 wounded ants and forced them to return alone to the anthill. 32% percent of them died when hunted by other animals. He then decided to mark the injured ants with acrylic paint and observed something curious: When they were transported back home, something “magical” happened. The next day, life was business as usual, and they returned to carry out missions against termites.

In 53 observed missions, Frank saw that they transported 154 injured ants back to the anthill. His calculations showed that each day, the ants rescued between nine and 15 of their wounded soldiers. Moreover, in a colony with only about 13 new broods daily, rescuing the wounded and “rehabilitating” them was almost essential to maintaining good numbers. According to Frank’s calculations, the colonies would be almost 30% smaller without these rescue missions. Therefore, saving the injured ants is in the group’s best interest.

What do you mean they know about antibiotics? Frank’s team observed that not all injured ants were taken back to the colony. If an ant was severely wounded (missing five legs and shaking on the floor), the others wouldn’t carry it back. However, if an ant had minor injuries (some less severe cuts or amputations), its companions would carry it home. Quite fascinating. However, what was happening that night inside the anthill to ensure that the mutilated or wounded ant was as good as new to go hunting again?

The researchers discovered that healthy ants would lick the wounds of their injured companions for several minutes. They conducted another experiment where they deprived injured ants of this licking treatment–80% of them died within 24 hours. When the injured ants received the licking treatment from their healthy comrades, the chances of dying dropped to 10%.

Further investigation revealed that when the wounded ants were kept in a sterile environment, their chances of dying dropped from 80% to 20%. This indicated that infections in a natural environment, without receiving aid, were what caused the high mortality rate among the injured ants.

War surgery. This isn’t all. A recent study by Frank’s team revealed that ants not only know about antibiotics—they also know about surgery. The study showed that Florida carpenter ants, or Camponotus floridanus, are capable of cleaning wounds to prevent infection. If necessary, they also perform amputations.

During their experiments, Frank’s team observed that they initially treated the wounds on the femur of the injured ants by cleaning the area and then repeatedly biting the leg until a clean amputation was achieved. This amputation process took a few minutes to complete. Moreover, Frank pointed out something very interesting: “The ants are able to diagnose a wound, see if it’s infected or sterile, and treat it accordingly... The only medical system that can rival that would be the human one.”

They know where to cut. What’s interesting is that ants don’t always amputate right away when it’s necessary. If the injury is in the tibia, they use antimicrobial secretions to treat it, amputating only if the damage is to the femur. According to Frank’s observations, the complex muscles in the femur slow down blood flow, so if there’s an infection, it takes longer for the infected blood to reach the rest of the body. This gives the “surgeon” ants more time to perform the amputation.

The situation is different when it comes to the tibia: Since there’s less muscle tissue, blood circulates faster, which means that infections can spread more quickly. Because it only takes a few minutes to amputate, harmful bacteria may have already entered the body. Therefore, first aid should prioritize cleaning the wound with antimicrobial agents.

They aren’t unique. This is a surgery that works. When amputation is performed, the survival rate for femur injuries improves from less than 40% to between 90% and 95%. Similarly, survival with the cleaning treatment in tibia injuries improves from 15% to 75%, resembling the results seen in sub-Saharan ants.

The fact that this first aid treatment is observed in two different species, despite their geographic separation, suggests that it’s not a unique feature. What’s more unique is amputation. In fact, the next steps of Frank’s research will focus on observing other species that don’t possess antimicrobial glands to see if they also perform similar “war surgery.”

Image | Cell| Bob Peterson

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