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What would say if you knew that there are ants in Africa that carry their injured and then look after them? This is the amazing story of the ‘paramedic’ ants.

The National Geographic has reported on a new discovery in Africa that sheds new light on the behavior of ants. The myrmecologist (an entomologist that deals with ants) Erik T. Frank discovered in 2017 that the Matabele ants of sub-Saharan Africa often act as ‘paramedics’ when any of them get injured.

These ants get injured often because they feed themselves by attacking large colonies of termites and eating hundreds of them. Although many ants are left unscathed after these attacks, others become injured by the bites of the larger soldier termites. That much was already well known by myrmecologists, but what Frank discovered by observing these attacks and the ants’ behavior is that the unscathed ants carry their injured counterparts back home after each raid.

Human-like Behavior?

The discovery that Matabele ants carry their injured back to their nest is only a small portion of what Frank and his colleagues observed. The also noticed that when the healthy ants carry their injured comrades back to the nest, they hold their hurt limbs gently with their front legs and mandibles and even lick them for several minutes, presumably for relief. All these discoveries have now been made public in a paper entitled ‘Wound Treatment and Selective help In A Termite-hunting Ant’, authored by Erik T. Frank, Marten Wehrhahn, and Eduard Linsenmair, published by the Proceeding of the Royal Society B. on February 14, 2018.

It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about? – Henry David Thoreau

The discovery of this behavior marks the first time that nursing has been observed in non-human animals. According to the National Geographic, Frank was impressed by the sophisticated treatment of injured ants by the other ants.

How Was the Discovery Made?

The 2017 discovery of this hitherto unheard-of behavior in non-human animals was made at the Comoé National Research Station, which is located in the North East section of the West African nation of Côte d’Ivoire.

The team was managed by Erik T. Frank who at the time of the discovery was a Ph.D. student at the University of Würzburg in Bavaria, Germany. Although the team was there to observe how the Matabele ants attacked the termite colonies, Frank became curious about the ants’ behavior. He asked himself what happened when the uninjured ants transported their injured counterparts back to their nests.

So, Frank and his colleagues used artificial nests that had a clear cover on top. They placed an infrared camera in such a position that it would capture what was going on inside the artificial nest.

This is what allowed Frank and his fellow myrmecologists involved in the project to observed that the uninjured ants would take in their injured colleagues and examine their injuries using their antennae to do so. It is, apparently, quite common even for healthy ants to probe each other with their antennae but Frank and his colleagues observed that healthy ants do this to injured ants more than twice as often as they do it to healthy ants.

What Are the Matabele Ants?

Matabele ant is the common name of the Megaponera analis. They get their common name from the fierce Matabele tribe that lay siege on other tribes in Sub-Saharan Africa during the 19th century. The current name for his Bantu Nation is the Northern Ndebele people and they are native to Southern Africa, mostly the present-day countries of Zimbabwe and South Africa.

The reason the Megaponera analis get their common name from such a fierce tribe of warriors is that they are famous for raiding termite colonies. These ants, who are distributed in all regions of sub-Saharan Africa only eat termites. They have been observed to assume a column-like formation when they attack termite colonies. Because their attacks are so sophisticated, they have been likened to the tribe.

The Megaponera analis or Matabele ants are known to exist in the following African countries:

  • Senegal.
  • Guinea.
  • Sierra Leon.
  • Liberia.
  • Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire).
  • Ghana.
  • Togo.
  • Benin (likely).
  • Nigeria.
  • Cameroon.
  • Equatorial Guinea (likely).
  • Gabon (likely).
  • The Republic of the Congo (likely).
  • The Central African Republic.
  • The Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  • Angola.
  • South Africa.
  • Swaziland.
  • Lesotho.
  • Zimbabwe
  • Mozambique.
  • Tanzania.
  • Malawi (likely).
  • Rwanda (likely).
  • Burundi (likely).
  • Kenya.
  • Uganda.
  • Somalia.
  • Ethiopia.
  • Eritrea.
  • South Sudan.
  • Sudan.

These ants have spread across most of Sub-Saharan Africa, which means that there are many subspecies. So, far there are five different recognized subspecies:

  • The Amazon in Ethiopia.
  • The Crassicornis in Mozambique.
  • The Rapax in Tanzania.
  • The Subpilosa in Angola.
  • The Termitivora in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But it is believed that there could easily be many more subspecies.

Their size is between 0.20 and 0.71 inches (between 5 and 18 millimeters). Their nests are subterranean, which is why Frank and his team had to create artificial nests in order to observe their behavior. There are other differences between these ants other than their varying sizes. There are also differences in their mandibles. Before their ‘nursing behavior’ was observed in 2017, researchers knew about their raiding behavior. Researchers had already observed that their raids on termite colonies tend to be concentrated at dawn and dusk. First, between 6:00 am and 10:00 am and, then, between 3:00 pm and 7:00 pm.

The follow a pattern whereby they sent out scout ants to search for termite colonies around their subterranean nest for about an hour, if a colony is discovered then the scouts will investigate closer, and create a direct route from their nest to the colony. What we now know is that these ants also take care of each other.


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