Recent observations in the wild suggest that chimpanzees may be practicing health care on each other and crushing insects to use as medicine – but many questions remain.
What is certain is that a small group of chimpanzees, about 45 in the troop, have been seen crushing insects and applying the insects to open wounds on themselves or other chimps, and that behavior has not been seen before. It is also unclear whether this and similar behavior is common among chimps or restricted to certain groups.
Perhaps it is not something to be too surprised about as chimpanzees, humans and bonobos are very closely related. Chimpanzee and human DNA is 98.8 percent identical, so quite a few similarities are likely. Chimpanzees and bonobos are similar physically but bonobo groups are more peaceful and are led by females.
This research has been published in Current Biology and concerns a troop of chimpanzees in Gabon. Researchers in the Ozouga Chimpanzee Project made the discovery. The Ozouga project works in Gabon’s Loango National Park. The park includes forest, savannah and coastline. The park covers about 1500 square kilometers and was founded in 2002.
In November, 2019 a volunteer observed a mother approach her son, suffering from a foot wound. She took something out of her mouth and placed it in the wound. A volunteer researcher spotted the unusual behavior on video. Subsequent viewing suggested the object was an insect. In the following15 months the same or similar behavior was observed 22 times. Sometimes one chimpanzee aiding another, but most incidents exhibited what looked like “self-medicating” behavior. That included rubbing the insect in the wound. Although self-medication is known among other animals, this appears to be the first time insects have been observed being used as medicine. One animal treating another is very rare, too.
Several hurdles remain for scientists trying to explain the behavior exactly. They have not been able to identify the insect used. That makes it difficult to know if the chimpanzees are truly self-medicating. They are working with entomologists to try to determine which small insect the primates are grabbing and applying. That will help determine the medicinal impact of the insect. It is also possible that the behavior is specific to this group of chimpanzees. Chimpanzees in other areas have been observed using leaves to daub wounds, but they don’t seem to grab specific leaves.