You Can Actually Use Ants to Stitch a Wound In the Wild

But you really shouldn't.

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May 14 2015, 6:57pm

Image: Laboratory of Social Evolution and Behavior, Rockefeller University

Let me tell you a story.

You're trekking through the South African forest, and your medical supplies have run out. This is exceedingly poor timing, because you just slipped on a mossy log and sliced your right arm open down the middle on a sharp rock below. You need stitches, badly.

"I saw Apocalypto," you think to yourself as you paint the lush green underbrush with a hot, copper red. "Christ, I wasted part of my soon to end life watching Apocalypto." But then you remember: hey, didn't the ancient Mayans in that movie use an army ant close a nasty wound?

With the brazen confidence of having seen something in a movie once, you pick up a writhing ant and let it bite you around the wound. You pull its body away, leaving the head stuck in your arm. It stings, but it closes the gash. You bring three more ants to your bloody limb and repeat the painful process.

Three days later the wound gets infected because you let an angry ant dig its grubby little mandibles into an open wound and you die.

The end.

"From a medical perspective I think this is completely bogus"

What's the moral of the story? Well, one might say it's "don't do something just because you saw it in a movie, or on YouTube." To be sure, there's no shortage of videos on the internet that suggest a Dolyrus army ant can use its incredibly strong mandibles to close a wound, like modern-day stitches would. But there's more to the tale.

There is "loose" evidence of ancient peoples in India and South Africa using ants as stitches, according to Biomaterials Science, a textbook co-edited by Buddy Ratner, director of the University of Washington Engineered Biomaterials lab. According to the text, "the heads of large, biting ants clamped wound edges together."

So, it does appear as if ants were used for medical purposes at one time. To find out whether this is actually a good idea or not in the 21st century, I reached out to Daniel Kronauer, a biologist and head of the Laboratory of Social Evolution and Behaviour at Rockefeller University, which studies the behaviour of army ants like Dolyrus.

"Yes, I believe that's true," Kronauer told me in an email. "I haven't seen it practiced myself, but I have heard reports of East African tribal peoples using Dorylus soldiers as sutures (at least traditionally), and the same applies to South American indigenous peoples and the soldiers of Eciton army ants. Apparently the head of the ant is snapped off the rest of the body once it is attached."

"I'm not aware of drawbacks or risks," he continued, "other than the obvious that you might be concerned about hygienic standards."

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It's a promising answer, but not exactly conclusive. To get a second opinion, I asked Grzegorz Buczkowski, an entomologist who leads the Urban Ecology Laboratory at Purdue University. He was less bullish on the idea of using ants to close a wound, and highlighted the potential for infection.

"As an entomologist I can tell you that the ant mandibles will pinch the skin and could technically help close a wound," Buczowski told me in an email. "But from a medical perspective I think this is completely bogus. It's not going to work the same way as a proper medical treatment. And it could cause other problems like infection since ants are not sterile. Overall, I would not recommend this."

Despite these concerns, it seems like some tough guys are still keen on the idea of using an ant to close a wound. In an episode of "Dual Survival," a show on the Discovery Channel in which two burly dudes survive in the wilderness, one of the characters closes another's unserious-looking cut with three ants, with a full TV crew—and, presumably, actual stitches—present.

In a behind-the-scenes clip, the receiver of the au naturel stitches notes how those suckers are really in there and are going to be tough to get out of his bloody arm. He looks a little scared.

All in all, it seems like it's technically possible to close a nasty cut with an ant, but, as the experts I talked to suggested, it's far from advisable.