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Video shows how Chimps give each other insect band-aids may hint at a new treatment for wounds

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Scientists have observed the first evidence of chimps tending to each other’s wounds by applying insects to them.

Researchers in Gabon, West Africa, witnessed chimps applying insects to their wounds and the wounds of others for the first time.

Scientists describe this wound-tending activity in a paper published in the journal Current Biology today and claim that it demonstrates that chimps have the capacity for prosocial actions that have been related to empathy in humans.

Alessandra Mascaro, a volunteer at the Ozouga Chimpanzee Project, saw a chimp named Suzee checking a cut on the foot of her adolescent son, Sia, by collecting an insect in the air, placing it in her mouth, and then applying it to the wound in November 2019.

The Ozouga Chimpanzee Project had been watching this group of chimps in Loango National Park for seven years but had never seen anything like this. Mascaro recorded the mother and son and gave it to her supervisors, Tobias Deschner, a cognitive biologist at Osnabrück University, and Simone Pika, a primatologist with the project.

Video shows how Chimps give each other insect band-aids may hint at a new treatment for wounds
Chimp applying insect to wound

“In the video, you can see that Suzee is first looking at the foot of her son, and then it’s as if she is thinking, ‘What could I do?’ and then she looks up, sees the insect, and catches it for her son,’” says Mascaro.

Over the next 15 months, the Ozouga team observed the chimps for this type of wound-tending activity, documenting 76 instances of the group applying insects to wounds on themselves and others.

This wasn’t the first time nonhuman creatures were caught self-medicating. Bears, elephants, and bees, according to studies, all do it. What’s noteworthy is that no insecticides have been used so far, and the chimps not only cure their own wounds, but also those of others.

The act of applying an insect to another’s wounds, according to Pika, is a clear example of prosocial behavior—behavior that works in the best interests of others rather than one’s own.

“This is, for me, especially breathtaking because so many people doubt prosocial abilities in other animals,” she adds. “Suddenly we have a species where we really see individuals caring for others.”

The scientists aren’t sure which insects the chimps are eating or what their medical properties are.

“Self-medication — where individuals use plant-parts or non-nutritional substances to combat pathogens or parasites — has been observed across multiple animal species including insects, reptiles, birds and mammals,” adds cognitive biologist Simone Pika.

“Our two closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, for instance, swallow leaves of plants with anthelmintic properties and chew bitter leaves that have chemical properties to kill intestinal parasites.

“Humans use many species of insect as remedies against sickness—there have been studies showing that insects can have antibiotic, antiviral, and anthelmintic functions.”

The researchers also speculated that the insects may have calming characteristics that could help with pain treatment.

https://youtu.be/iD38FRL2_ls

The Ozouga team now wants to figure out which insects the chimps are using and who is applying them to whom.

“Studying great apes in their natural environments is crucial to shed light on our own cognitive evolution,” says Deschner. “We need to still put much more effort into studying and protecting them and also protecting their natural habitats.”

Source: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.12.045

Image Credit: Tobias Deschner under CC BY-SA

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