Officials with the Ozouga Chimpanzee Project at Loango National Park in Gabon first spotted a female chimp taking a tiny winged insect from her mouth and placing it in a wound on her son's foot in November 2019. She then removed the bug and repeated the process two more times, reports AFP. "We had witnessed something really amazing," cognitive biologist Dr. Simone Pika of Germany's Osnabrueck University now tells New Scientist. Over the next 15 months, researchers observed the same behavior another 21 times among the wild community. Their conclusion: chimpanzees appear to use insects as a form of first aid, as only humans have been known to do before.
In 19 cases, a chimp caught a small winged insect, pressed it between their lips, rubbed it into their own wound, then removed it. In the other three cases—including the one in November 2019—a chimp applied the insect to another's wound. "Such examples of clear prosocial behaviors are rarely observed in nonhuman species," Pika says in a release. "They seem to understand that if you do this to me with this insect, then my wound gets better," she adds, per AFP. "It's amazing." A variety of animals are known to self-medicate with plants. Chimps, for instance, "swallow leaves of plants with anthelmintic properties and chew bitter leaves that have chemical properties to kill intestinal parasites," Pika says, per the release. But this could be the first instance of animals self-medicating with insects, according to New Scientist.
Humans have been applying insects, such as maggots, as therapeutic agents for thousands of years, according to the release. "You can find many amazing substances in insects which are antibiotic, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal," Pika, co-author of the study published Monday in the journal Current Biology, tells New Scientist. "They can have a soothing effect or help you to decrease the inflammation." The question is, "do [the chimps] understand what they're doing?" According to Pika, if the chimps aren't self-medicating, they might instead be using the insects for comfort in a similar way to how humans use adhesive bandages. It's still unclear which insect species the chimps are catching. (Read more chimpanzees stories.)