Mommy medicine: Stunning video captures chimpanzee applying an insect remedy to her son’s wound

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OSNABRÜCK, Germany — A chimpanzee mom is wowing scientists after a wildlife video captured her applying insects to her son’s wound to an attempt to heal them.

Researchers from Osnabrück University say a team was watching chimps in the wild of Gabon as they applied insects they caught to wounds and the wounds of their loved ones. “Suzee” the chimp was inspecting a wound on her adolescent son Sia’s foot before catching an insect out of the air, putting it in her mouth, pressing it between her lips, and then applying it to the wound as her daughter Sassandra watched.

Scientists say it shows the primates can show love and empathy for each other just like humans. The footage was captured in November 2019 by volunteer biologist Alessandra Mascaro in Loango National Park in the West African country. Researchers from the Ozouga Chimpanzee Project had been studying the group of chimps for seven years but had never seen anything like this before.

Chimps aren’t the only animals using natural remedies

After they made the discovery, the team started looking for more evidence of this wound-tending behavior. Over the next 15 months, they unearthed 76 examples of the same group applying insects to their own injuries and each other’s wounds. They recorded their findings in a study published in the journal Current Biology.

It is not the first time wildlife observers have seen animals treating themselves for ailments. Previous studies have revealed examples of bears, elephants, and even bees doing similar things in nature. However, applying insects to heal wounds has never been seen in animals before and the researchers say it is remarkable the chimps apply the tiny creatures to others as well as themselves.

Insect antibiotics?

Study authors say it is a very clear example of empathetic “prosocial behavior” which is also a common sight among humans. It is not yet clear why chimps use insects to treat wounds or which ones they pick out of the air. The scientists say the unique behavior may be a way of relieving pain.

“In the video, you can see that Suzee is first looking at the foot of her son, and then it’s as if she is thinking, ‘What could I do?’ and then she looks up, sees the insect, and catches it for her son,” Mascaro says in a media release.

“This is, for me, especially breathtaking because so many people doubt prosocial abilities in other animals,” adds study author Dr. Simone Pika from Osnabrück University. “Suddenly we have a species where we really see individuals caring for others.”

“Humans use many species of insect as remedies against sickness—there have been studies showing that insects can have antibiotic, antiviral, and anthelmintic functions,” Pika says.

“Studying great apes in their natural environments is crucial to shed light on our own cognitive evolution,” concludes study author Dr. Tobias Dreschner. “We need to still put much more effort into studying and protecting them and also protecting their natural habitats.”

South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.