by Russ McSpadden / Earth First! News
[The text of this work is free to share and distribute under the following Creative Commons License CC-BY-ND 3.0]
The art of midwifery is ancient. The lineage of women healers aiding childbearing mothers during pregnancy can be dated textually as far back as the Middle Kingdom period in ancient Egypt (and similarly in the Middle East and Greece). Archeological and anthropological evidence suggests it may very well date to the origins of our species. It continues as a well respected profession practiced internationally today.
Its also not an exclusively human tradition. Recently, a team of zoologist observed the art of midwifery practiced by Chinese black snub nosed monkeys.
Its the first time biologists have actually ever seen these high-altitude monkeys labor and birth, because they usually do so in forest canopy at night and in under 15 minutes.
So imagine the surprise when Wen Xiao of Dali University in Yunnan and his colleagues stumbled upon a black snub nosed monkey mother in a rare day time birth aided but what appears to be a monkey midwife.
According to Michael Marshall, writing in the New Scientist:
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.