Animal intelligence: chimpanzees would heal the wounds of their brethren

Catching an insect and applying it to the wound of a similar one: this behavior – never described before – would have been observed by researchers in several free-ranging chimpanzees in Loango National Park, in Gabon (West Africa). But for Sabrina Krief, a primatologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and interviewed by, this finding requires validation.

Our close cousins ​​haven’t finished surprising us! As part of the “Ozouga Chimpanzee Project” aimed at monitoring a population of free-roaming chimpanzees in Loango National Park, Gabon, a volunteer witnessed a surprising gesture in November 2019. As Suzee, a woman, inspects a wound in the foot of her teenage son, the young woman saw her mother catching a flying insect, putting it in her mouth, and finally applying it to her calf wound. Intrigued, the volunteer and her colleagues followed the primates for about fifteen months to see if this behavior reappeared. Result: on twenty occasions, chimpanzees would have captured insects, applying them not only to their own wounds, but also – on 3 occasions – to those of their congeners (Current Biology, 07/02/2022). A brief gesture, however, and therefore difficult to analyze (see video below).

an in-depth study

This discovery, if confirmed, would be part of the fascinating field of “zoopharmacognosy”, that is, the use by animals of natural substances with medicinal properties to treat themselves, for example, when they are victims of parasites. ” It is about studying the behaviors of ingestion or use in external use (in skin, editor’s note) of this type of substance by sick (or) injured chimpanzeesexplains Sabrina Krief, primatologist at the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) in Paris, accompanied by The activity of the part of the plant consumed should be related to the symptoms, and ideally it should be possible to follow the individual and observe his recovery within a time limit and with a “dosage” (dosage and frequency of use of the “medicine”, editor’s note) compatible. »

If chimpanzees are known to treat themselves with plants, never before has an individual been seen treating another congener, let alone with the help of an insect. A surprise for primatologists? ” In fact, we often talk about self-medication. But here the steps described above are not validated (…), that is, we do not know the insect used and, therefore, even less the biological activity that it could have, (and) there are no observations that allow us to confirm that the applied insect allowed the cure. We also do not have confirmation that it is always the same species of insect. “, nuance however S. Krief. To confirm their findings, the researchers will have to “ collect and identify the insect(s) ” and ” collect a large amount to determine if they have therapeutic activity and which one “, specifies the researcher at the Museum.

Biodiversity, essential for the health of chimpanzees… and for ours!

While waiting to better understand this unprecedented behavior observed in our close cousins, Sabrina Krief’s work on zoopharmacognosy is already providing interesting clues about the intelligence of great apes. ” My observations tend to show that the use of natural substances with therapeutic properties are practices acquired in part by individual as well as social learning.says the primatologist. They are often specific to a social group and are transmitted between individuals, not universal in chimpanzees. So these are cultural behaviors. »

The use of natural substances with therapeutic properties is a cultural behavior.
Sabrina Krief, National Museum of Natural History

Research dedicated to the use of “medicinal” substances by chimpanzees could also contribute to strengthening the protection of these animals, victims of poaching and deforestation and classified as “endangered” on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN ). ” It is interesting to deepen this work because it allows us to show cultural aspects that are still unknown, but also the strong link between animal and plant biodiversity and the health of our closest family members.highlights the author of Chimpanzees, my brothers in the forest », published by Actes Sud. Observing them can advance our knowledge of natural substances for human medicine. Both for the preservation of the great apes – and their habitat – and for our own health, it is now up to us to act!


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