Evolution and Biodiversity

Category: disease

Amputation saves ant lives

Workers of Florida carpenter ant amputate legs when useful

With a wound on a leg, a worker of the Florida carpenter ant, Camponotus floridanus, would have only a small chance to survive if it were not for her nest mates that come to the rescue. To prevent infection, they lick the wound clean and often amputate the leg, significantly increasing the survival chance, Erik Frank and colleagues show. This care is frequently needed because colonies of this ant species fight each other intensively.

The researchers tested the ants’ medical skills by making a small cut in the leg of workers. They then injected a saline solution containing a deadly bacterium, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, into the wound. Infected ants were placed either in isolation or in a nest where two hundred workers were available.

Most of the ants that sat alone after infection succumbed to the injuries. But when placed in a nest, most ants did survive thanks to the care of nest mates. What care they provided turned out to depend on where the wound was.

If the infected wound was on the upper leg, usually one of the nest mates intervened drastically and bit off the leg at the top. If the wound was on the lower leg, this did not happen; instead, workers licked the wound thoroughly clean. In both cases, helpers chose the treatment that was most effective, as became clear in experiments with infected wounds in which the researchers amputated the affected leg.

If they amputated a leg of an ant with a wound on the upper part, then her chance to survive was as high as it was in the case of amputation by nestmates. But if they removed a leg with an injury on the lower part, it did not help: most patients died. The treatment that the ants apply in that case, extensive cleaning, is much more effective.

Why is amputation only helpful for an infection in the upper leg?

Whether an ant will survive an infection depends on how quickly the bacteria are able to spread through the body: the higher the bacterial load, the higher the mortality. The bacteria spread via the hemolymph, the insect version of blood, which flows through the legs in channels.

In the upper leg, these channels are narrower than in the lower leg, so that bacteria are less likely to enter the hemolymph. Also, the upper leg has much more muscle mass than the lower leg, and blood is pumped around by muscle movements. If the upper leg is affected, circulation is slowed down much more than if the lower leg is affected, impeding the spread of bacteria.

Consequently, when the upper leg is affected, ants have enough time to perform an amputation, which takes forty minutes at least, before the bacteria have spread. But timely amputation is unfeasible with an infection in the lower leg. Then cleaning is the best way to help a victim.

The ants also amputated the leg if the researchers injured the upper leg but injected a sterile saline solution instead of a solution with bacteria. That makes sense, because under natural conditions, in the ants’ nest, such a wound is most likely to become infected. The workers err on the side of caution.

The Florida carpenter ant is the only animal species known to apply amputation to treat conspecifics in case of injury.

The researchers previously discovered that also workers of the Matabele ant from Africa, Megaponera analis, treat infected wounds of nestmates. They do so by administering antibiotics from glands on their backs that produce a mix of antimicrobial substances. The Florida carpenter ant does not have such a built-in pharmacy. For this ant, cleaning and amputation are good alternatives.

Willy van Strien

Illustration: ©Hanna Haring

See also: the Matabele ant fights infections with self-made antibiotics

Frank, E.T., D. Buffat, J. Liberti, L. Aibekova, E.P. Economo & L. Keller, 2024. Wound-dependent leg amputations to combat infections in an ant society. Current Biology, 2 July online. Doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2024.06.021

Cleaning ants are successful

Metarhizium fungus makes fewer victims

Argentine ant removes sporen of Metarhizium fungus

Ants defend themselves against disease-causing Metarhizium fungus by grooming off fungal spores from each other. Prolonged exposure to that cleaning behaviour makes the fungus less deadly, Miriam Stock and colleagues show.

Metarhizium fungus can quickly spread throughout an ant nest because the ants easily infect each other with fungal spores. But the animals take action to inhibit the pathogen. That does not leave the fungus unaffected, Miriam Stock and colleagues show with experiments.

To counteract the fungus, ants can disinfect nest and brood (eggs, larvae and pupae) with a mixture of formic acid, which they produce in a poison gland, and tree resin. In addition, a sick ant stays away from the brood and spends more and more time outside the nest so as not to endanger its nest-mates. And the animals keep each other clean. If spores of the fungus land on an ant, her nest-mates either groom off the spores, risking infection themselves, or spray them with formic acid.

New spores

These caring nest-mates should act quickly. The spores attach on the affected ant and germinate, after which nothing can be done anymore. The fungus penetrates the body to develop, eventually killing the ant. Then the fungus appears on the cadaver forming spores that make new victims in the next infection cycle.

Conducting experiments with the Argentine ant, Linepithema humile, Stock shows that timely care does indeed help; the presence of other ants reduces the chance that an ant dies after contact with fungal spores.

But, as it turns out, cleaning also causes changes in the fungus.

Metarhizium-fungus adapts

The trials consisted of series in which the Metarhizium fungus passed repeatedly via spores from a dead ant to a new victim. In half of these series, the infected ant was held isolated, in the other half she was accompanied by two nest-mates that could remove the fungal spores. Conducting a final test after ten infection cycles, the researchers allowed the fungus to infect either an isolated ant or an ant with company.

In the final test, fungal lines that had grown on isolated ants caused a lot of mortality among newly infected ants when they did not receive care from others. But fungal lines that had infected ants that were in company of other ants – that could groom them -, had changed. They formed twice as many spores, but nevertheless made fewer victims among ants they came into contact with, even if there were no nest-mates around to help. These fungal lines had become less deadly.

Essential component

And there was something else: the spores of those ‘social fungal lines’ were less well detected and removed by the ants. The researchers discovered that these spores produced less ergosterol; this is a compound that occurs in all fungi and that, apparently, arouses the ants. So, the ‘social fungus lines’ evade defence by the ants.

But this comes at a cost. Ergosterol is an essential component of the spore membrane. The fact that the ‘social lines’ have lower levels of this important component probably explains why they are less deadly.

So, grooming each other to remove Metarhizium fungus spores as ants do is useful in two ways. It works immediately if ants quickly remove spores from a nest-mate, saving her from death. And in the longer term, it makes the fungus less dangerous.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Argentine ants exchanging food. Davefoc (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

See also: ants disinfect their nest with a mixture of resin and formic acid

Stock, M., B. Milutinović, M. Hoenigsberger, A.V. Grasse, F. Wiesenhofer, N. Kampleitner, M. Narasimhan, T. Schmitt & S. Cremer, 2023. Pathogen evasion of social immunity. Nature Ecology & Evolution, online February 2. Doi: 10.1038/s41559-023-01981-6
Brütsch, T., G. Jaffuel, A. Vallat, T.C.J. Turlings & M. Chapuisat, 2017. Wood ants produce a potent antimicrobial agent by applying formic acid on tree-collected resin. Ecology and Evolution 7: 2249-2254. Doi: 10.1002/ece3.2834
Bos, N., T. Lefèvre, A.B. Jensen & P. D’Ettore, 2012. Sick ants become unsociable. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 25: 342-351. Doi: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2011.02425.x
Chapuisat, M., A. Oppliger, P. Magliano & P. Christe, 2007. Wood ants use resin to protect themselves against pathogens. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 274: 2013-2017. Doi: 10.1098/rspb.2007.0531