Most primates, and many other animals for that matter, normally give birth at night in order to avoid predators, as well as to give the new mother time to recover and start nursing her infant. This means that observations of wild primates giving birth are few and far between.
And yet, after five years of studying the same group of golden snub-nosed monkeys (Rhinopithecus roxellana), researchers finally caught the seldom seen act when one mother gave birth during the day. The researchers even managed to photograph the event, which they have reported in the journal Primates.
But the surprises didn’t stop there, as the new mother didn’t go through the act alone. Alongside her was a second female, grooming and calming the birthing mother, as well as helping to deliver and clean the infant. Long thought to have been a uniquely human behavior, only a handful of primates have been found to have what in effect are midwifes, including one of our closest living relatives the bonobo. So why do so few primates, including us, do it?
The second "midwife" monkey groomed the mother, and even helped to pull the infant from the birth canal. Bin Yang
It was originally thought the development of midwifery in humans was influenced by the fact that in the lead up to birth in humans, the fetus turns around within the uterus and faces away from the mother during delivery. This is because in other species when the infant is born, the mother is able to lift the baby straight away and clear the airways, although this is prevented in humans.
But then to confuse things further, in 2011 after being the first to witness a chimpanzee birth, researchers found that chimp infants are born in the same orientation, but they don’t display midwife behavior.
The mother and infant seem to be doing well. Bin Yang
In the newly reported case with the golden snub-nosed monkeys, researchers found that as soon as the mother started showing signs of agitation, the second female monkey came in to groom her. When the contractions started, she stayed close by, and when the baby started to crown, she helped to pull it free. After the mother fed and licked the newborn, she allowed the second female to hold and lick it too. In the few hours after the birth, the mother only let the “midwife” monkey and one other female hold the new infant, rejecting another juvenile who also came in to have a look.
The birth only lasted a quick four minutes and 10 seconds, after which the new mother severed the umbilical cord and then ate the placenta in order to regain vital nutrients from the organ. The second female stayed by her side the entire time. How common this behavior is among the monkeys is still unknown, but the researchers hope to answer this question by filming them giving birth at night, and then seeing if other females are just as attentive.