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.


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Kathleen Yale is Orion‘s digital editor and the author of the award-winning children’s book Howl Like a Wolf! and the game Guess My Animal! which both combine ecology, animal behavior, and imagination to engage children in creative play. 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 outside of Glacier National Park, with her family.