Flying pharmacies may be being utilized by chimpanzees in the Loango National Park in Gabon, where researchers have witnessed these animals applying insects to wounds. The novel behavior may be a form of medication, which – if true – would make this the first time chimps have been observed using animal matter to heal.
The remarkable finding is published in a paper in Current Biology, written by a team of researchers from Osnabrück University, Germany, and the Ozouga Chimpanzee Project. It focuses on the behaviors of around 45 chimps, a group in which individuals have been spotted catching, crushing, and applying insects to their own wounds as well as the wounds of others.
Incredible stuff. And while it marks the first time insects have been used in this way it’s not the first time our close relatives have gotten creative with “medicine” in nature.
“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”, said cognitive biologist Simone Pika in a statement. “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."
The discovery that insects may have joined the chimps’ pharmaceutical reserve came about incidentally, as the team began noticing that certain individuals were doing something unusual when dealing with injuries. For Alessandra Mascaro who volunteered on the research, the first observation involved a mother chimp called Suzee who was seen snatching something out of the air, putting it between her lips, and applying it to a wound on her son Sia’s foot.
A similar observation was seen involving an adult male named Freddy, and after reviewing the footage the researchers realized the chimps were probably grabbing flying insects. Having clocked on to the behavior, the team were on the lookout for similar observations and eventually recorded 22 similar insect “medicine” events.
One of the most remarkable interactions seen saw an adult female named Carol who snatched an insect and handed it to an adult male, Littlegrey, that had a laceration on his shin. Carol and some other chimps then touched Littlegrey’s wound and moved the insect across it, in an apparent example of altruistic wound treatment.
Whether the behavior carries any medical benefits remains to be seen, but insects have historically been used for therapeutic purposes by humans as far back as 1,400 BCE and continue to be used in certain parts of the globe to this day. It’s also possible that the bug rubbing doesn’t carry any scientific benefit but is a part of chimp culture among this group.
The team now hopes to continue their work to reach a better understanding of this novel behavior.
"Our observations provide the first evidence that chimpanzees regularly capture insects and apply them onto open wounds,” said lead author and primatologist Tobias Deschner. “We now aim to investigate the potential beneficial consequences of such a surprising behaviour.”
Corrections: This article was updated on February 8, 2022, to correct that Suzee didn't chew the insect but put it between her lips.