In the past, a typical family had a mother, father, and approximately 2.3 kids. That was the norm—though I’m still trying to figure out how a third of a child (.3) is normal. Today, families come in all shapes and sizes. There are single parents, there are interracial families, there are same-gender parents, and there are a lot of foster families and adoptions happening more every day.

photo by Ted Ollikkala (image source: Flickr)

A fascinating discovery, however, shows that humans are not the only creature to have a soft spot for orphans. Chimpanzees have also displayed such behavior, particularly one pair found in the Tai Forest throughout the Ivory Coast. These adoptive parents—both a mother and a father—devoted massive amounts of time and effort to caring for and protecting their new charges, without receiving any obvious personal benefit from the experience. Oh, and we’re not talking 2 or 3 adoptions—we’re talking about 18 cases of orphaned chimps being adopted in the wild.

This behavior is known as altruism, which basically means that one will go to extremes in order to help another without receiving any reward or benefit from their efforts. Until recently, scientists believed this was purely a human trait. While the chimpanzee is the closest primate relative to a human, those tested in captivity rarely displayed any form of altruistic behavior. Although, being that they are the closest animal species to a human, it would be no surprise that traits like this would be shared between them (at some point).

According to head researcher, Christophe Boesch, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology:

“Based on some of the captive studies, you see very strong claims that what makes humans special is this ability to cooperate and be altruistic toward one another. In that sense, the observation of Tai forest requires a big shift in our thinking about what makes us human, in the sense that this ability to be altruistic is something that we also see in chimpanzees.”

The chimpanzees’ adoptive nature is truly amazing. The “parents” don’t seem to reap any benefit from their efforts and it would be much easier for them to survive on their own. Even more interesting is that typically, parenting is the responsibility of the female; however, at least half of the adoptive parents have been male—one of which turned out to be the younger chimp’s genetic father.

Boesch explains his observations and experience with the study further:

“Some adoptions of orphans by unrelated adults lasted for years and imply extensive care towards the orphans. This includes being permanently associated with the orphan, waiting for it during travel, providing protection in conflicts and sharing food with the orphan.” … “What really surprised me in looking at the long-term data is to see that some of these adult males go really far in adopting a motherly role, carrying the baby on their back, sharing a nest, helping babies to climb trees, really caring a lot. Normally mothers do this, but not males.”

Why the chimps in the Tai forest have developed an altruistic is still unknown. It is speculated, however, that the chimpanzees face fierce predators and scarce food sources and as such, the harsh situation may have forced them into sticking together in order to survive.

There is one other extremely fascinating account of animal altruistic behavior that I have to mention. About a month ago, I was watching a show on Animal Planet, called Heart of a Lioness. This awesome documentary followed the account of Kamunyak, a lioness who lived in the Samburu National Reserve of northern Kenya. This lioness adopted not one, but six Oryx calves over a 1 year period. The Oryx is a natural prey of the lion and for a lioness—a hunter amongst her kind—to take care of an orphaned calf as if it were one of her own cubs, was truly an amazing site. This lion defied all natural laws, baffled the locals and today scientists still do not know why.