New Study Suggests Chimpanzees Can Feel Empathy


| LAST UPDATE 02/08/2022

By Stanley Wickens
chimpanzees human behavior empathy
Windzepher via Getty Images

The ways of wild animals have fascinated humans for centuries - to the point where human civilizations have actually mimicked them throughout their history. And the latest news about chimpanzees is yet another chapter to add to the ever-evolving story.

At the Loango National Park in Gabon, located on the west coast of Africa, scientists have recently observed chimpanzees treating wound using insects. Not only did the apes do this for their own wounds, but also to heal the wounds of others. According to scientists, the behavior of self-medication is pretty common across several species, but this is the first time an animal has been seen applying medication to the injuries of others. A new study based on the observation suggests that this behavior may indicate signs of habits and tendencies in chimpanzees that resemble empathy in humans.

chimpanzee heal wounds empathy
Anup Shah via Getty Images
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A team of researchers at the park recorded 76 cases of chimpanzees applying insects to their wounds and the wounds of others over a period of 15 months. The first time the behavior was noticed was when volunteer Alessandra Mascaro witnessed a chimp named Suzee applying an insect she had just caught to her son's injured foot. About a week later, doctoral student, Lara Southern watched the same thing happen when an adult female chimp named Carol caught an insect and handed it to an adult male named Littlegrey. "What struck me most was that she handed it to Littlegrey, he applied it to his wound, and subsequently Carol and two other adult chimpanzees also touched the wound and moved the insect on it. The three unrelated chimpanzees seemed to perform these behaviors solely for the benefit of their group member," Southern explained.

Simone Pika, a cognitive biologist and one of the leaders of the Ozouga Chimpanzee Project at the Loango National Park, mentioned that tending to others in the interest of helping them - also known as "prosocial behavior" - isn't common in animals. "This is, for me, especially breathtaking because so many people doubt prosocial abilities in other animals," Pika said. "Suddenly, we have a species where we really see individuals caring for others." Although researchers aren't yet sure whether this behavior can be considered empathy, it certainly contributes to the ongoing debate among scientists regarding chimpanzees. Whether they can be deemed prosocial or empathetic, it certainly is fascinating to still see them surprise us with new behaviors every day. 

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