Nose-poking primates spark scientific quest

It’s a biological mission that began with a chance encounter with a lemur picking its nose.

It wasn’t just any lemur; an aye-aye was filmed by Professor Anne-Claire Fabre of the University of Bern burying her elongated finger in her nostril.

“I wanted to know where is that finger going?” she told the BBC.

The meeting at the Duke Lemur Center in the United States led Professor Fabre and his colleagues to question the evolutionary origins of this habit.

Aye-ayes are nocturnal primates found only in Madagascar. They are famous for their weird, skinny, long fingers, which they use to fish for grubs in branches.

“He was inserting the full length and, [when you look at] the length of his head, it was like – where is he going?” she recalled. “I was wondering – is he inserting it into his brain? It was so weird and seemed impossible.”

The question intrigued Professor Fabre so much that she performed a 3D anatomical analysis of the head of the aye-aye, to reconstruct the seemingly impossible anatomy of the nose pick.

“It was going into the sinus and from the sinus into the throat and into the mouth,” she explained.

Along with his colleagues, Professor Fabre searched the scientific literature for evidence of other animals picking their noses. In a study published in the Journal of Zoology, the team found 12 examples of primates caught picking their noses.

As Professor Fabre, who is also curator of mammals at the Natural History Museum in Bern, has pointed out, there are very few studies aimed at understanding why any animal, including humans, could have developed the impulse. to pick your nose.

“We really think this behavior is understudied because it’s really considered a bad habit,” Prof Fabre explained. Studies that study people’s behavior have shed light on the frequency of this habit, revealing that the majority of humans often pick their noses but are reluctant to admit it.

There are a few studies looking at the harms — and possible benefits — of nose picking. Some have pointed to its role in spreading harmful bacteria. But there is at least one study to suggest that picking your nose and eating it might actually be healthy for your teeth, as people who picked their nose reported fewer cavities.

One study has encouraged further research by suggesting that ingesting nasal mucus may play an important role for the immune system, due to the immune proteins found in mucus.

Basically, Professor Fabre says it is likely that it evolved for a reason and should be investigated.

“We have no idea what its functional role is,” she told the BBC. “And that could be advantageous.”

Rather than just being gross, it may have benefits for some species and since so many animals seem to share the habit, Prof Fabre said: “I think we really need to study it.”

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