Other than humans, chimpanzees make use of the most diverse range of tools of all animals on the planet. They have been observed ‘fishing’ for ants and termites in tree stumps, using stones to crack open nuts and even playing with gourds as if they were balls.


Now, researchers at the Universities of Kent and St Andrews have observed another unusual behaviour in chimpanzees – digging for wells. What’s more, they believe the chimps were taught the behaviour from a female who joined the group from another community.

To make the discovery, the team observed the behaviour of a group of rainforest chimpanzees in the Waibira community of East African Chimpanzees in Uganda.

They first noticed a young female named Onyofi, who joined the group in 2015, digging wells with great skill shortly after her arrival. This suggests that she grew up in a well-digging community of chimps before leaving to join the Waibira group, the researchers say.

Onyofi’s actions initially attracted a lot of interest among the other members of the group. This included large, dominant males, who would patiently watch her dig and drink from the well before drinking from it themselves. Since then, several other female Waibira chimpanzees have been observed copying Onyofi's behaviour and digging their own wells.

"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," said lead researcher Hella Péter, a Biological Anthropology PhD student at Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation.

"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 flavoured water from a well, which is fascinating.”

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.