Scientists observe chimpanzee mother caring for disabled infant, a first

Chimpanzees are one of the living closest relatives to humans, and can teach us about how we evolved. File/ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Japanese scientists have, for the first time, observed a chimpanzee caring for a severely disabled infant.

Chimpanzees are one of our closest living relatives (they share the distinction with bonobos). While they are very familial, no one has ever documented a case where a disabled infant was born into a family and then cared for — until now. This new discovery is helping researchers better understand how our own social behaviour may have developed during our evolution.

READ MORE: Primatologist Jane Goodall still educating the world about chimpanzees

The female infant was born in Tanzania’s Mahale Mountains National Park with a severe disability similar to Down’s Syndrome. She also had a lump on her stomach, damage to her spine and a sixth finger.

The mother wouldn’t allow any non-relatives to care for her, but took on the responsibility of care herself (the researchers had observed previous instances where she would allow others to care for her young).

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Researchers believe that the infant lived for 23 months.

“One characteristic of human society is that people reasonably take care of the disabled and those in vulnerable positions,” researcher Michio Nakamura told the Japan Times. “It’s interesting to observe a chimpanzee looking after a disabled infant in terms of finding out when such sociality occurs, as they are the closest modern species to humans.”

The study was released in the journal Primates.

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