The art of midwifery has a deep, rich history dating back to The Old Testament, but what if it went back even further than that? Could midwifery be a practice that dates back to the origin of (wo)man? A new article addresses the idea that midwifery may not be an exclusively human role.
Chinese black snub nosed monkeys have rarely been observed giving birth because they do so high in the canopies of the forest. Their births are almost always quick, under 15-minutes, and at night, making observation difficult. However, biologists in China had the rare and exciting opportunity to witness a Chinese black snub nosed monkey give birth when she went into labor in the day light with what appeared to be a monkey midwife.
“A female monkey gave birth to her first infant within fifteen minutes late one morning. While sitting in a rhododendron tree, she began twisting her body and calling faintly. After 10 minutes she started screaming, and then another female climbed up the tree. She was an experienced mother, and sat beside the labouring female while the crown of the infant’s head appeared. Once the head was fully exposed, the “midwife” pulled the baby out with both hands and ripped open the birth membranes.
Within a minute, the mother had reclaimed the infant from the midwife, severed the umbilical cord, and begun eating the placenta. A few minutes later, the midwife went back down to the forest floor to forage.
“This is a fairly rare observation,” says Sarah Turner of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who was not involved in the Yunnan study. She says female monkeys often pull their babies out themselves, and the midwife may have adapted this behaviour. “It’s hard to know what’s going on in her head,” says Turner, but it seems she was genuinely helping.
That could be because female black snub-nosed monkeys tend to stay in the group they were born in. As a result, the females in a group are likely to be closely related and to have strong social bonds. Animals often help their relatives because doing so preserves their own genes, a phenomenon called kin selection.
The juvenile females in the group watched the birth closely, and may have picked up a few tips. Turner says many primates remain with their groups while giving birth, giving juveniles a chance to learn.”