Chimpanzees are the closest living relatives of humans. Like us, chimpanzees use technology.

  • Jane Goodall discovered chimpanzees using twigs to go “fishing” for termites by sticking them in the holes of termite mounds and eating the termites that grab the twig. 
  • Chimpanzees may use some plants as medicines to control parasite infections and make themselves feel better. 
  • Chimpanzees also know how to build wells by digging holes in the soil where underground water is present.
  • Chimpanzees learn by watching and copying each other. And like humans, some chimpanzees become teachers who show their fellow troop members how to use technology.

Primatologist Catherine Hobaiter and her team watched a young female chimpanzee they call Onyofi digging in the mud of her rainforest habitat in western Uganda. Hobaiter, who works at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom, says she initially thought Onyofi was digging for roots. But then she saw that Onyofi was peering into the hole she had just made.

“She was clearly kind of waiting afterwards,” Hobaiter says. “And the other part that sort of drew my attention to it was that there were other chimps around and they seemed fascinated by her behavior. And you don’t get that so often.”

Hobaiter watched as the hole began to fill with water and Onyofi drank from it. She had noticed these holes in the ground before but never imagined that these were chimp-made wells.

well digging chimp
A chimpanzee peers into the hole it’s just dug. Image courtesy of Hella Péter and the Budongo Conservation Field Station.

Previous examples of chimps digging wells have been observed in areas where water is a limited resource, like in a savanna. Onyofi’s well digging was the first time this behavior was observed in rainforest-dwelling chimps. 

Onyofi is an immigrant female who joined the Waibira chimpanzee community of 120 individuals in Uganda’s Budongo Forest in 2014. 

The researchers suspect that Onyofi learned how to dig wells in her original community. And they think that members of her new community learned how to dig wells by copying her. The primatologist research team observed  56 instances that were considered “well-digging events” by 20 different chimps of the Waibira community. Most of the well digging observed was done by female chimpanzees. Onyofi was the greatest well digger in the group, with 14 wells documented between 2015 and 2019.

The researchers found multiple instances of other chimps peering at Onyofi and even drinking out of the wells that she and other chimps would make. Onyofi may have brought a new skill to the Wabira chimpanzee troop that might help them when they encounter drought conditions.

Adapted from an article by Manon Verchot and Sanshey Biswas, published on Mongabay.com: