Biotechnology

See how a chimpanzee mother applies an insect to her son’s wound

Roxy and Theo from a community of about 45 chimpanzees living in Loanga National Park in Gabon are being studied by the Ozouga Chimpanzee Project led by cognitive biologist Professor Simona Pico and primatologist Dr. Tobias Deshner. Credit: (c) Tobias Deschner / Ozuga Chimpanzee Project

For the first time, researchers observed chimpanzees in Gabon, West Africa, inflicting insects on their wounds and the wounds of others. In a study published February 7, 2022 in the Journal Modern biologyScientists describe such behavior that heals wounds, and argue that this is evidence that chimpanzees have the ability to prosocial behaviors that have been associated with empathy in humans.

In November 2019, Alessandro Mascara, a volunteer The Ozuga Chimpanzee Project, watched as a chimpanzee nicknamed Susie inspected a wound on the leg of her teenage son Sia, caught an insect from the air, put it in her mouth, and then applied it to the wound. Researchers at the Ozouga Chimpanzee Project have studied this group of chimpanzees in Loang National Park for 7 years, but have not previously witnessed such behavior. Mascara shot a video of the mother and son and showed it to her supervisors, Tobias Deschner, the primatologist of the project, and Simone Pico, a cognitive biologist at the University of Osnabrück.

“The video shows Susie first looking at her son’s leg and then seeming to think, ‘What could I do?’ and then she looks up, sees an insect and catches it for her son, ”says Mascara. The Ozouga team began monitoring chimpanzees for this type of behavior in wound healing and over the next 15 months documented 76 cases of insects inflicting wounds on themselves and others.

This was not the first time that non-human animals had observed self-medication. Researchers report that bears, elephants and bees also do this. It is noteworthy that the use of insects has never been observed and that chimpanzees treat not only their own but also other people’s wounds.

Pico argues that inflicting an insect on another’s wounds is a shining example of prosocial behavior – behavior that acts in the best interests of others, not just oneself. “For me, it’s especially fascinating because a lot of people doubt the prosocial abilities of other animals,” she says. “Suddenly we have a view where we really see people who care about others.”

The research team does not know exactly which insects chimpanzees use and what their medicinal properties are. “People use many types of insects as anti-disease drugs – there have been studies that show that insects can perform antibiotic, antiviral and anthelmintic functions,” says Pico. Researchers have also suggested that insects may have soothing properties that can relieve pain.

Now the Ozouga team is looking to identify the insects that chimpanzees use and document who is using the insects to whom. “Studying apes in their natural habitat is crucial to shedding light on our own cognitive evolution,” says Dashner. “We still need to make much more effort in studying and protecting them, as well as in protecting their natural habitat.”

For more on this study, see Watched chimpanzees attach insects to wounds.

Reference: “Insecting insects on themselves and other chimpanzees in the wild” by Alessandro Mascara and Lara M. South, February 7, 2022, Modern biology.
DOI: 10.1016 / j.cub.2021.12.045

This work was supported by the Max Planck Society and the European Research Council.



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