Watch: Soldier Ants Rescue and Treat Their Wounded Warriors

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New research shows that African Matabele ants nurse comrades wounded during raids for food. Erik Frank

African Matabele ants nurse their wounded comrades on the battlefield, researchers have discovered. This life-saving behavior reduces the death rate among injured ants from approximately 80 percent to 10 percent.

Ants carry their injured nestmates home from termite-hunting raids before licking their open wounds, the study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows. Researchers believe this is the first time such nursing behavior has been shown in a non-human animal.

"This is not conducted through self-medication, as is known in many animals, but rather through treatment by nestmates which, through intense licking of the wound, are likely able to prevent an infection," said study co-author Erik Frank of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland in a press statement. Frank was involved in the research during his time at the Julius Maximilian University of Wuerzburg in Germany.

At about 0.8 inches in length, the Matabele is one of the largest ants, but it is frequently injured in its attempts to catch and eat termites. The ants swarm termite feeding grounds in armies of between 200 and 600 soldiers. Ant legs are a common casualty of war; termites frequently bite them off.

Drama queens and model patients

If injured, the ants produce pheromones to alert their fellow soldiers, Frank said. Some soldiers return home with prey while others survey the battlefield for their wounded colleagues. They pick up some of those in need of help while leaving terminally-wounded ants behind.

Ants that had lost five or more of their legs were seen to lash out and flounder until their comrades stopped trying to save them. However ants with lesser injuries lay still to aid their rescue.

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African Matabele ants kill larger termites. Erik Frank

Nursing may be necessary for survival

Frank said that around 20 ants are injured per colony, per day, during these raids.

"Since the colony has a relatively small birth rate of only 10-14 ants per day, this high number of injuries per day would be very costly for them if they wouldn't save the injured," Frank told Agence France-Presse.

The research, Frank said in a statement, raises many further questions.

"How do ants recognise where exactly a mate was injured? How do they know when to stop dressing the wounds? Is treatment purely preventive (to avoid infection) or also therapeutic, after an infection has occurred?"