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Are Humans the Only Creatures Who Understand Medicine?

By Kevin Hellyer
Updated May 16, 2024
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Chimpanzees have been known to eat beneficial plants or insects when they’re sick or injured. And there's evidence that as far back as 1,400 BCE, humans have been using insects medicinally, from treating inflammation with bee byproducts to applying maggots to necrotic tissue. But recent observations from the Loango Chimpanzee Project in the rainforests of Gabon mark the first recorded instance of an animal using insect therapy on another animal.

Researchers were watching a chimpanzee named Suzee and her son, Sia. After inspecting a wound on Sia's foot, Suzee took an insect from a nearby leaf, chewed it, and then applied the crushed bug antiseptic to her child’s wound. In total, there were 19 instances of chimpanzees applying insects to their own bodies, and two instances of injured chimps being nursed by other members of their group.

Paging Dr. Chimpanzee:

  • This is the first documented incident in which chimpanzees have been observed applying insects both to their own wounds and to the wounds of others. Animals have previously been seen self-medicating, but never administering a topical application to a another animal.

  • The researchers don't yet know what insects the apes were using, but they theorize the winged insects were used as antibiotics, antivirals, or as a means to soothe pain and reduce inflammation.

  • The researchers say that chimpanzees applying insects to each other's wounds shows prosocial behavior – acting in the interests of others instead of just oneself. This was previously thought to be an exclusively human trait.

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