Can Wild Animals Be Selfless?


John Oh, Journalist

Lara Southern and other researchers find chimpanzees using insects to heal the wounds of other chimpanzees, possibly showing their ability to feel empathy and their understanding of the benefit of the group, clearing the debate on whether wild animals could be selfless.

During a research for the Ozouga Chimpanzee Project, the researchers observed the chimpanzees repeating the appliance of insects to open wounds for about 20 times. However, they couldn’t find out what caused the bugs to heal the wounds but it is assumed that the bugs were used as a painkiller.

The use of medicine in nature by non-human mammals is interesting, however, it is not rare to see animals treat their wounds with plants: dogs and cats which do not have enzymes to digest grass intentionally eat grass to help them vomit to cleanse their insides and deers and bears eat bitter plants to help them heal faster.

Lara Southern, a researcher and PhD candidate at Ozouga Chimpanzee Project explains why chimpanzee’s healing of others was different from the other animals.

“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 said.

Healing a member of the group takes effort and energy and the instinct of an animal will tell it to do what is beneficial for the individual. 

There had been a long debate on whether wild animals were intelligent enough to overcome their natural instinct of selfishness for survival and be selfless.

The three unrelated chimpanzees helping out the injured shows that the chimpanzees could indeed be selfless, clearing the long debate.

While the action of selflessness could contribute to how the chimpanzees trusted the unrelated chimpanzees, Simone Pika, an animal cognition expert from the University of Osnabrück in Germany, explains what allowed the chimpanzee to have trusted them enough to let them touch her.

“They just keep still in a way they know something good will happen to them.” Pika said.

Pika states that the trust is ensured because the chimpanzees know that there will be a good outcome from the treatment. This further ensured that the chimpanzees were more than intelligent enough to trust their kind and could even understand medication.

While this debate has been solved, wild chimpanzees are endangered and now have a population of 150,000 to 250,000.

In conclusion, the chimpanzees could overcome their natural instincts to become a stronger social group and although the scientists don’t know why the bugs were used, we must continue to protect the endangered chimpanzees in order to study their growth and other potential wonders that they might bring.