Chimpanzees are concerned with healing the wounds of their peers; use insects as medicine

EFE / The Voice of Michoacan

Science. Chimpanzees not only heal their wounds but also that of others, as has been verified for the first time by a group of researchers, who consider it proof that they are capable of behaviors related to empathy and could be a potential case of medication, with the use of insects.

Scientists from the Ozouga Chimpanzee Project in Gabon have been studying a group of these animals in Loango National Park for seven years and publish this discovery in Current Biology.

The first time they observed this behavior was in 2019, when a chimpanzee named Suzee was inspecting a wound on the foot of her teenage son, after which she picked up an insect in the air, put it in her mouth and applied it to the damaged area. .

“You can see in the video that Suzee first looks at her son’s foot, and then it’s like she’s like, ‘What could I do?’ and then she looks up, sees the insect and catches it for her son, ”said one of the authors of the study Alessandra Mascaro, who recorded the images.

Scientists believe that this behavior of healing the wounds of other specimens is “proof that chimpanzees have the ability to perform prosocial behaviors that have been linked to empathy in humans.”

The team began monitoring the chimpanzees for this type of wound-care behavior and over the next 15 months documented 76 cases in which the group applied insects to the wounds of themselves and others.

On one occasion, an adult male, Littlegrey, had a deep open wound on his shin and Carol, an adult female, who had been grooming him, suddenly reached out for an insect, Lara Southern said.

“What struck me most was that she gave it to Littlegrey, he applied it to the wound, and then Carol and two other adult chimpanzees also touched the wound and moved the insect over it. The three unrelated chimpanzees appeared to perform these behaviors solely for the benefit of their group member.”

Applying an insect to the wounds of another is “a clear example of prosocial behavior, that is, behavior that acts for the benefit of others” not just oneself, said Simone Pika of the University of Osnabrück. “Suddenly we have a species where we really see individuals who care about each other.”

This is not the first time that non-human animals have been observed to self-medicate. Our two closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, swallow leaves of plants with anthelmintic properties and chew other bitters that kill intestinal parasites, what is striking is that they have never been seen to do so with the others.

In addition, the external application of animal matter to open wounds has never been documented. The team now wants to investigate “the possible beneficial consequences of such surprising behavior,” said primatologist Tobias Deschner.

Now, scientists are going to identify which insects they use and document who applies it to whom. “Studying great apes in their natural environments is crucial to shedding light on our own cognitive evolution,” Pika said.

“Our study shows that there is still much to explore and discover about our closest living relatives, and therefore we must continue to do much more to protect them in their natural habitat,” said Deschner.

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