A student from Exeter University has observed some surprising behaviour in baboons at Paignton Zoo.

Charlotte Morgan, who is studying an MSc in Animal Behaviour at Exeter University, watched the monkeys flossing their teeth.

First observed in 2015

The Baboons at Paignton Zoo were initially observed in 2015.  A female hamadryas baboon was seen using the bristle from an old broom to clean her teeth.

Previous studies had suggested that primates floss for hygiene and social purposes.

Charlotte Morgan went onto say:

“Past research at the Zoo found that certain baboons floss using their own hair and bristles from broom heads. I have observed cases where baboons will pluck hair off other baboons to floss, which is pretty exciting! My research project is looking to see if personality is related to dental flossing activity in the troop.

From the results of my study, there does appear to be a relationship between certain personality traits and dental flossing. From what I have observed, they start off by grooming themselves and then they pluck off their own hair and place it between their teeth. With the broom heads they usually play around with them and then pluck the bristles off to floss.

It’s very difficult to suggest, without more complex experimental set ups, exactly how the baboons are learning to floss. Trial and error learning at an individual level is probably occurring in some group members, but there may be a social learning element as well. We have found that animals from certain harems floss more than others, so potentially animals are learning from their social cohorts. We have also found animals that rate highly on the personality trait ‘imitation’ are more likely to floss, so it’s possible that these individuals are more likely to observe and learn from other baboons that have demonstrated dental flossing.”

Director of Conservation and Education, Dr Amy Plowman went onto say:

“Animals like dogs and even chimps can be taught to do things, which is very clever but it’s much more interesting scientifically if animals spontaneously do something with a tool without being taught, which would be the case with the baboons.”

Macaques in Thailand are also known to make use of strands from human hair to floss.


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