Forest chimpanzees learned to dig wells

(ORDO NEWS) — By observing a skilled female, jungle primates have learned a rare skill common to their savannah relatives, gaining access to clean, filtered soil water.

Only a few species of animals demonstrate the ability to dig up the upper layers of the soil to get to the water. This behavior is known in ungulates – horses, zebra donkeys – African elephants, warthogs and, of course, humans.

Now the closest relatives of man, chimpanzees, have been added to this list. Primates living in the jungles of Uganda have learned to make “wells” to get water, and scientists know from whom.

The East African subspecies of chimpanzee ( Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii ) inhabits the tropical rainforests of equatorial Africa – from the Congo to Tanzania.

Catherine Hobaiter and her colleagues from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland are studying the communities of these animals that live in the Waibira Wildlife Sanctuary in Uganda.

Back in 2015, an “emigrant” appeared among them – a young female who arrived from outside this area. After the female joined the inhabitants of Vabira, scientists gave her the nickname Onyofi.

Even then, she demonstrated the skill of digging up the earth in search of water, and very skillfully and confidently. This, according to biologists, indicates that Oniofi came from a community where this skill was mastered long ago.

Her actions attracted great interest from young Vabira chimpanzees, as well as individual adult animals, who closely watched the digging, and subsequently drank from the wells.

After some time, local primates also mastered digging. Curiously, digging has been recorded in young chimpanzees and some adult females. Males have not learned this, although they can use water that seeps into ready-made “wells”.

Digging is usually associated with water scarcity, and so far only three groups of chimpanzees are known to experts who dig up the earth to get moisture – all of them, like elephants and warthogs, live in arid savannahs.

Not surprisingly, the primates living in the humid forests of Uganda have not yet used this skill. Nevertheless, it seems to bring some benefit in the jungle.

Firstly, for several months of the year there is a dry season, when moisture becomes insufficient. Secondly, scientists have noticed that chimpanzees often arrange “wells” near open water bodies. Apparently, their main task is not to give access to water, but to filter it.

“Chimpanzees can get cleaner, different-smelling water, which is very attractive,” added Hella Péter, one of the authors of the new work.

“We look forward to when the young males who have mastered digging grow up. Perhaps they will become an acceptable role model for adult males, and they will stop relying on others to dig wells for themselves.


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