Antibiotics: How one ant species identifies and treats infected wounds among other ants

A dramatic battle results in an infected wound for a soldier, who is taken home and receives specialized medical care. This may seem like the plot of a movie, but it’s actually something that happens every day in the insect world, according to new research.

a new role published on friday The peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications describes how a specific species of ant can not only create its own antibiotics, but also identify infected wounds from sterile wounds.

The matabele ant is a species of ant found widely south of the Sahara. The only thing they eat are termites, a diet that requires dangerous hunting expeditions, in which termite soldiers defend themselves with fearsome jaws.

But fortunately for these ants, they have something that many other creatures don’t: a thriving system for treating wounds, which can reduce mortality by 90 percent.

“With the exception of humans, I don’t know of any other living being that can perform such sophisticated medical treatments for wounds,” says Erik Frank, researcher at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) in Würzburg and leader of the project team. he said in a press release.

Matabele ants, also known as Megaponera analis, have long been known to treat the wounds of their fellow ants that have been injured in the battle against termites.

Previous research has found that up to 22 percent of foragers who participate in termite raids will suffer injuries in the process, often losing one or two legs. The other ants will carry these injured foragers back to the nest to be treated by nursing ants.

Researchers knew that ants with untreated wounds almost always died within 24 hours, but until recently it was unknown what exactly happened during wound treatment.


To find out whether receiving treatment from nestmates actually had an impact on the likelihood that an ant with an infected wound would die, the researchers took ants with infected wounds and sterile wounds and placed them in isolation or with their colony. Ants with infected wounds that were placed with their colony were significantly more likely to recover compared to ants with infected wounds that were kept isolated, but ants with sterile wounds did not experience a significant difference in their mortality rate whether they were isolated or with their colony.

This showed that the ants were definitely doing something to counteract the infection itself.

So what was this treatment? The researchers discovered, through repeated observations, that when faced with an infected wound, the ants used their metapleural gland. This gland is located on the side of the ants’ thorax, which is the region of their body that we would consider their chest. Lactating ants collect secretions with their front legs, then lick them to accumulate the secretion in their mouth before licking the infected wound in question.

The metapleural gland (MG) secretes a combination of 112 chemical compounds and 41 proteins, according to the study, half of which have antimicrobial properties to aid in healing. Researchers found that the treatment is very effective and reduces the chance of death by 90 percent.

While observing the treatment process, the researchers realized that the ants were not only able to synthesize their own antibiotics, but they could also distinguish which ants had infected wounds and which did not.

MG secretions were only included in 10 percent of wound care interactions and were used significantly more on infected wounds, suggesting that the ants had a way of identifying when this more rigorous wound care was needed.

The researchers found that when a wound became infected, there was a change in the hydrocarbon profile of the ant’s cuticle, something that other ants appear to be able to detect and react to.

The study noted that while animals have been found to treat wounds in some way before (several mammals lick wounds to apply antiseptic saliva), these behaviors occur regardless of whether the wound is infected or not, and their effectiveness is unknown. .

The ability of matabele ants to identify an infected wound appears to be a rare ability in the animal or insect kingdom.

Whether it is completely unique is still unknown; That’s something the researchers hope to follow in future studies looking at wound care among other species.

And it could shed light on human antibiotics in the future, according to Laurent Keller, a professor at the University of Lausanne and co-author of the paper.

“(These findings) have medical implications because the main pathogen in ant wounds, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, is also a leading cause of infection in humans, and several strains are resistant to antibiotics,” Keller said.

It’s been a busy few months for the Matabele ants. In addition to the article published last week, the ants also appeared in a Netflix series that premiered in October 2023 called ‘Life on Our Planet’. Frank’s Ants was filmed in 2021 at the Comoe Research Station for the documentary series.

“It took three weeks (to film), the effort was enormous,” Frank said in the statement.

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