Chimpanzees Use Crushed Insects As Medicine

Researchers observed the use of crushed insects by chimpanzees to heal open wounds for the first time.

Chimpanzees Use Crushed Insects As Medicine

For the past seven years, researchers from the Ozouga Chimpanzee Project have been studying a group of about 45 chimpanzees in Gabon’s Loango National Park. The event happened at the end of 2019, but it was only recently published in Cell Current Biology.

Alessandra Mascaro, a project volunteer, was filming a female named Suzee interacting with her calf when she appeared to take something from the air, place it between her lips, and apply it to an open wound on the calf’s foot. Other chimpanzees exhibited the same behavior.

The researchers came to the conclusion that the objects they grabbed from the air were most likely flying insects. The next year, they began filming the injured chimpanzees who displayed this behavior in the group. The insects used may have anti-inflammatory or antiseptic properties.

Self-medication

Many animals have been observed using self-medication, in which individuals use plants and other substances to combat parasites or diseases. To kill intestinal parasites, chimpanzees, for example, swallow or chew plant leaves with anti-parasitic properties. However, this is the first report of a remedy being applied topically.

Furthermore, unlike the mother with her offspring, the chimpanzees studied not only treated their own wounds but also applied the insects to the wounds of others, sometimes unrelated. This suggests prosocial behavior, i.e., behavior for the benefit of the other group members, which was not previously apparent in chimpanzees.

Scientists have discovered that the bonds between adult males and adult females are the weakest in chimp society. Male-to-male bonds are stronger, as are female-to-female and female-to-offspring bonds. However, this behavior of curing another member has also been observed between an adult male and an adult female who did not have a particularly close relationship.

The team is also interested in identifying the insect species used by chimpanzees, which is difficult because chimpanzees crush insects in their mouths as part of their processing. These findings highlight how little is known about the behavior and lives of large primates, many of which are endangered.