Ants self-medicate like humans: study

Ants, like humans, self-medicate against infections, choosing to ingest hydrogen peroxide after being infected with fungus, a new study has found.

Humans have been using self-medication to cure the illnesses since the dawn of our species. There is some evidence that also other animals can exhibit this type of behaviour, but the evidence has been hard to come by.

Now, scientists from the University of Helsinki, Finland, have shown that black ant Formica fusca can change their taste for food once exposed to the fungal pathogens.

In the compound of interest was hydrogen peroxide, which can be found in the damaged plants, other insects and cadavers.

“When ants are feeding on the diet containing extra free radicals they are able to survive infections significantly better,” said researcher Dalial Freitak from the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences.

“Moreover, the ants also choose the diet including extra free radicals after they are exposed to fungus, but not if they are not,” Freitak said.

“It is amazing discovery that ants have an idea of their health status and seem to adjust the dosage of medicine to that,” said fellow researcher Nick Bos.

For healthy individuals under no infection conditions, feeding on the free radical diet has the same detrimental side-effects as with any drug.

But once infected, free-radical-feeding ants have about 20 per cent higher chances to survive the otherwise lethal fungal disease.