Chimpanzees dig wells for water | Sunday Observer

Chimpanzees dig wells for water

30 July, 2022

Ever since Jane Goodall discovered Chimpanzees in Africa using tools in the 1960s, we have since been fascinated by this behaviour and uncovered a wealth of more information. All three great apes have been observed using tools in the wild; they usually learn this from fellow apes. Most recently, researchers have observed a community of Ugandan chimpanzees digging wells for water. It is believed that they learned this skill from an ‘immigrant’ of another community. This is a breakthrough in what we know about wild ape cognitive skills.

“In the community we study, Dr Cat Hobaiter from the University of St Andrews, the senior author of the study, was the first to spot chimpanzees digging for water in early 2017 in the main water source of the community,” said Hella Péter, PhD student of Anthropology at the University of Kent in an exclusive interview with Sunday Observer. “The wells are dug by hand, and are usually a couple centimeters deep,” Péter said. “Female chimpanzees usually leave the group they are born in once they reach adolescence, and can travel long distances until they find the one they settle in.”

Common behaviour

She said, “Onyofi appeared in 2015, but as we only monitor two out of the many chimpanzee groups in the area, we unfortunately don’t know her exact origins. What is certain though, is that she already knew how to dig wells, which suggests that it might have been a common behaviour in the group she comes from.”

This year, Dr. Simone Pika, a cognitive biologist with the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Osnabrück discovered a chimpanzee group in Gabon, West Africa, administering makeshift ‘medicine’ on fellow chimps. According to Prof Kathelijne Koops, University of Zurich in the Department of Anthropology, who has studied wild chimpanzees, “Tool use and certain behaviours vary across chimp communities as far as 6km away.”

Péter said, “Then it also tells us more about how a new behaviour can spread between chimpanzee communities – immigrant females are the most likely “ambassadors” of such behaviour, having learnt them in their natal community, then moving to a new group as young adults.”


From using sticks to fish for termites, leaves to act as sponges to extract water and rocks to crack open nuts, rudimentary makeshift hunting and fishing gadgets, we have come a long way in what we know about this primate, that is only found in Africa. For humans to know that our closest relatives are adept at ‘Stone Age’ level technology and how this varies across groups is fascinating indeed. The chimp troop that dug wells in Uganda and the group that administer medicine on fellow apes in Gabon, live over 2000 km away, separated by human and natural barriers, making it unlikely that they can cross-pollinate their information to each other any time soon.

“As we highlight in the study, this group of chimpanzees is the first rainforest group to dig wells, even when they have water available, which suggests that there must be some extra quality, like improved hygiene or flavour, to the water they gain from the wells for it to be worth the time and effort.” This hints that there is more to be learned as the jungle keeps unraveling more and more amazing finds about our distant relative.