Do Chimpanzees Practice Medicine?
Do Bumblebees Play Ball?
“Sort of,” and “yes”
This column’s objective is to cover a wide range of topics. Hopefully, subjects that you’ll find interesting.
These explorations are intended to entertain, illuminate, spark curiosity and encourage further research. Except for cats, curiosity can be a valuable asset, especially in today’s world where we must all be vigilant fact-checkers.
I hope these diverse topics point the way to a greater understanding of our complex and fascinating world. Perhaps, even creating an occasional WOW moment.
Once again, science has been hard at work uncovering new mysteries about our fellow inhabitants on this tiny blue planet. The following article, written in plain, understandable terms, may challenge how we generally regard non-human creatures, both large and small.
After all, Sapiens are a bit arrogant about our place in this world. Particularly so when we start bantering about those two words, “dominion over,” as in, dominion over all we know, including “everything that creeps upon the earth.”
“All that we know” may have more in common with humans than we think.
Obviously, chimpanzees do not don white jackets with stethoscopes hanging from their necks – not yet, anyway – give them a few more million years.
However, recent research reveals that chimps apply insects as a medical remedy to themselves, their offspring and others in their groups that have open wounds.
Why do they do this?
A researcher studying mother-infant behaviors in the 600 square-mile Loango National Park in Gabon, Africa, noted a mother chimpanzee attending to a laceration on the foot of her adolescent son.
The mother began reaching up into the leaves just above her head as if searching for something specific. Using two fingers, she pinched a flying insect, placed it between her lips, and then applied it directly to the youngster’s wound.
After a short time, the mother picked the insect out of the wound and placed it between her lips, returning it to the injury again. She repeated this several more times until she seemed satisfied that whatever was inside the insect was now in the wound.
To the researcher, this was unexpected behavior on the part of the mother chimp. Such behavior was not the general purpose of her research, but she knew the chimp’s actions could be significant as it appeared to be a form of purposeful medical treatment.
For more than a year, primate researchers at the park focused on this behavior, documenting 76 more cases of individuals apparently using specific insects to treat their offspring and themselves and others within their group.
Researchers have yet to identify the specific insect species employed by these primate practitioners. They will not know the active compound(s), if any, existing within the insect’s body until conducting more research.
By closely observing the chimps during the study period, it is clear that the insect is crushed to release something akin to medication. The role of the chimp’s saliva, if any, is also unknown. Further research is currently in the works.
It is too early in the research to understand what the chimp’s behavior means. Still, there is a strong indication that chimps, like humans, are participating in treating injuries and illnesses with “home remedies.”
The direct application of a naturally occurring remedy to a wound by any non-human mammal was previously unknown. However, we have known for some time that many of our fellow creatures will consume parts of plants for various health reasons.
These reasons include controlling intestinal parasites, regurgitating indigestible foods and accidental consumption of poisonous plants and mushrooms.
Researchers have observed orangutans picking and chewing certain leaves until a foam develops in their mouth and then applying the potion to insect bites and parasites.
Capuchin monkeys will rub crushed millipedes onto their fur. Millipedes contain benzoquinone that repels insects and reduces topical bacterial and fungal infections.
If you are one of those lucky people who spends time with our canine buddies, you no doubt have noticed that they often eat grass. There are a number of theories on why they do this, ranging from dietary supplementation to the need to regurgitate.
There is no scientific consensus yet on why dogs eat grass, but most scientists feel that the behavior is instinctual rather than learned.
The bumblebee dribbles the ball down the court, making a winning jump shot, and the crowd goes crazy.
Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration leading into our next topic, but only moderately so.
Recent research results at Queen Mary University of London demonstrate that bumblebees can experience fun. Yet, having “fun” is something we humans feel is only the province of the higher orders of mammals and the occasional bird.
We are not gob-smacked with disbelief when we see images of chimps playing with each other or young otters finding demonstrable pleasure in sliding on their stomachs down a slippery bank and into the river.
We say or think, “Look at those adorable creatures having fun.” But, do we extend that same sentiment to those things that creep upon the earth, or in this case, fly among the flowers?
No one can deny that dogs and cats love to play – there is an entire billion-dollar pet toy industry based on this behavior. Dogs are all about playing – they wouldn’t be nearly as endearing to us if they didn’t love to chase, jump, wag their tails and fetch.
Yet, we would likely be unmoved or even notice if an insect appeared to be playing just for sheer fun. It is tempting to equate the size of the brain to certain complex emotions. The bigger, the better, eh? Maybe not.
As rational thinkers, we must not slip into anthropomorphism without sufficient evidence. To avoid this temptation, we turn to controlled experiments and evidence-based science
Do you think that it just may be possible that something as small-brained as a bumblebee can feel and express joy?
After rigorous experimentation, it appears that they can.
Researchers at Queen Mary University set up several experiments in which bumblebees were introduced to a sort of maze in which the insects could determine where they traveled.
Using several different experimental arrangements, the researchers could control for external variables that might skew the results. The goal was to create a stress-free environment for the bees, so they felt free to do as they pleased.
One passage led directly to the bee’s food, and a side passage led to a chamber with tiny multi-colored wooden balls.
Many of the bumblebees would ignore the food altogether and instead enter the side chamber and begin playing with the balls.
And, by playing, I mean that the bees would roll the balls, sometimes hilariously holding on while they literally somersaulted over the ball. More often than not, they would get right back on the ball and repeat the somersault. Clearly, the bees were involved in an activity that was pleasurable to them.
The study’s results also showed no preference for any particular color, tending to play with the first ball they encountered.
Gender played no significant role in whether they played with the balls, although, as with humans and many other mammals, younger bees were more likely to participate than adult bees.
Lars Chittka, professor of sensory and behavioral ecology, and head of the study said, “This research provides a strong indication that insect minds are far more sophisticated than we might imagine.”
So, maybe it is time to reevaluate how we regard even the smallest of our fellow earthlings. Earlier studies have shown that insects feel pain the same way we do, so perhaps we should view them in a new light.
That said, I will still swat the first mosquito that lands on me and kill every damn tick I find on my dogs. And, should I see a cockroach in the kitchen, consider it a dead roach.
However, I’ll smile at the next bumblebee buzzing by, whistling “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
In next week’s For Your Consideration, we will answer the questions: Is my dog a racist? And do rats enjoy dancing to music?
Only in The Pocahontas Times.
Want a quick laugh? Check out the link below to see bumblebees playing with balls.