Injured ants can detect infected wounds on each other’s bodies and treat them using antibiotics – just like a battle medic, reveals new research. Surprised scientists say they know of no other creature apart from humans who can carry out the treatment of injuries like this.
The discovery could lead to new types of antibiotics being produced. The Matabele ant, which is native to the southern Sahara desert, often becomes injured whilst hunting termites who aggressively defend their mounds.
However, researchers have discovered that ants are impressively able to distinguish between infected and non-infected wounds and apply a self-made antidote from their thorax.
The European research team found that the treatment is also highly effective – reducing the mortality rate of infected individuals by 90 percent. The researchers concluded that they had never encountered any other living creature that could carry out such ‘sophisticated medical wound treatments’.
The team also hopes to analyze the antibiotics used by the insects in the near future, which could lead to the discovery of new antibiotics for humans. Matabele ants are widely distributed in Sub-Saharan Africa and are known for their column-like raiding formation when attacking termite-feeding sites.
The fussy insects’ diet consists entirely of these termites, but hunting expeditions – even in their raiding formations – can prove dangerous. Termite soldiers protect their kind from would-be predators with their powerful, pincer-like mandibles, which act as jaws.
Therefore, it’s common for Matabele ants to get wounded on their termite hunts. If their wounds become infected, the insects face a significant risk of not surviving. However, the Matabele ants have developed a sophisticated, personal healthcare system to significantly boost their chances of survival.
The research team, from Universities in Germany and Switzerland, discovered the ants can distinguish between non-infected and infected wounds and treat infected injuries efficiently with antibiotics they produce themselves.
They found that the profile of the ant’s wounds changes when infected and that the ants themselves – as well as their nestmates – can recognize and diagnose infected wounds when they notice these changes.
Dr. Erik Frank, a lead author of the study from Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) Würzburg in central Germany, explained: “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.”
It’s precisely this change that the ants can recognize to make a diagnosis.
To treat each other’s wounds, they apply antimicrobial compounds and proteins to their infected wounds.
These ant antibiotics are produced from the metapleural gland, located in the side of the ants’ thorax, or waist.
Its secretion contains a substantial 112 components – half of which have an antimicrobial or wound-healing effect.
The treatment is so effective that the mortality rate of infected ants is reduced by around 90 percent, the researchers discovered.
“With the exception of humans, I know of no other living creature that can carry out such sophisticated medical wound treatments,” said Dr. Frank. Evolutionary biologist Laurent Keller, previously employed by the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, added: “These findings have medical implications, because the primary pathogen in ant’s wounds, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, is also a leading cause of infection in humans, with several strains being resistant to antibiotics.”
The researchers now hope to explore the wound care behaviors of other ant species and other social animals, to determine whether Matabele ants are the sole animals capable of self-treatment of this kind.
Dr. Frank also hopes to identify and analyze the antibiotics used by Matabele ants in cooperation with chemistry research groups, which could lead to the discovery of new antibiotics that could be used in humans.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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