Consider the Nurse Ant

Across sub-Saharan Africa, droves of shiny black Matabele ants (Megaponera analis) assemble for daily termite raids. But their appetite puts them at risk, for their prey bites back with a matched ferocity, often ripping off limbs.

In 2017, myrmecologist Erik Frank observed a group of wounded ants releasing a pheromone plea for rescue, while another group of paramedic ants roamed the area. Back in the nest, these “nurse” ants licked clean the wounds of their injured—a first for the known nonhuman animal world. Untreated, the loss of a limb is usually fatal, but Frank found 90 percent of tended ants survived their injuries.

From a clade that doggedly focuses on the collective and typically regards individuals as expendable comes this image of a tiny tongue cleaning a neighbor’s wound. And although this caretaking is likely less about mercy and more about group survival, an appealing sense remains: it’s easier to go after the prize with community health care at your back.

 

Subscribe to Orion Ad

Kathleen Yale is Orion’s special projects editor and author of the award-winning children’s book, Howl Like a Wolf!. She’s a former scriptwriter for the educational programs SciShow and Crash Course, and prior to that worked as a wildlife field biologist. She lives in Montana.