Baboons observed flossing their teeth at Paignton Zoo
Baboons at a British zoo have been observed flossing their teeth with broom bristles and their own hairs.
Charlotte Morgan, an animal behaviour student at the University of Exeter, spotted the primates cleaning between their teeth at Paignton Zoo Environmental Park in Devon.
The behaviour was first noted at the zoo a few years ago, when a female hamadryas baboon was seen using a bristle from an old broom to floss.
Previous studies have suggested that primates floss their teeth for hygienic and social purposes.
Miss Morgan said: “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.”
Miss Morgan said it was difficult to suggest exactly how the baboons had learnt how to floss but there may be a “social learning element”.
“We have found that animals from certain harems floss more than others, so potentially animals are learning from their social cohorts,” she said.
“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.”
Macaques in Thailand are known to use strands of human hair to floss their teeth.
Dr Amy Plowman, director of conservation and education at the zoo, said: “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.”