Chimpanzees are digging wells ‘after learning from an immigrant ape’


Rainforest chimpanzees are digging wells for cleaner water after apparently learning the skill from an immigrant female chimpanzee.

Research by the University of Kent and the University of St Andrews found that apes in the Waibira community of East African Chimpanzees in Uganda started digging small wells to access or filter drinking water – a relatively rare behavior in the animal kingdom.

It is the first time the well-digging behavior has been observed in rainforest chimpanzees, and it is believed to have been introduced to the community by an immigrant female chimpanzee named Onyofi who arrived in 2015.

Onyofi is believed to have grown up in a well-digging community and after she demonstrated the skill, Waibira chimpanzees and adult females were seen following suit. No adult males were observed digging, however, they regularly use the wells dug by others.

Onyofi’s well-digging attracted a lot of attention from the other chimpanzees in the group, and she was carefully watched both by young chimps and other adults, suggesting that when she arrived the behavior was novel to the Waibira community. Her wells de ella seem popular, with other chimpanzees drinking from them directly, or using chewed up leaves or moss, demonstrating that there seems to be some added benefit to well-water.

Well-digging is usually done to access water in very dry habitats

(Hello Peter)

The presence of the behavior also highlights the importance of water as a resource, even for rainforest living populations. With increasing change in the climate, behavioral adaptations to changes in rainfall may allow groups like Waibira to continue to thrive even when their local habitat starts to change.

The research published by Primates was led by Hella Péter (a Biological Anthropology PhD student at Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation) alongside Dr Catherine Hobaiter and Professor Klaus Zuberbühler (both St Andrews’ School of Psychology and Neuroscience).

Péter said: “Well digging is usually done to access water in very dry habitats – in chimpanzees, we only know about three savannah living groups who do so.

“What we’ve seen in Waibira is a bit different from those groups. First, they live in a rainforest, so most people assume getting water shouldn’t be a challenge – but it looks like the yearly few months of dry season is enough to cause some trouble for them.

“What’s also interesting is that the wells all appear next to open water, so the purpose of them is likely filtering, not reaching the water – the chimpanzees might get cleaner or differently flavored water from a well, which is fascinating.’

Dr Hobaiter added: “One of the most interesting things was seeing the other chimpanzees’ responses to Onyofi’s digging – even large dominant males would politely wait for her to finish digging and drinking, and only then go and borrow her well, which is pretty unusual around such a valuable resource.

“We’re curious to see what happens once some of the young males who can dig grow older – maybe they will be acceptable teachers for the big males, and they’ll stop relying on others to dig wells for them.”


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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