Common Cold Killing Chimps -- Researchers to Blame
Scientists call it the observer effect: the very act of observing something has a tendency to create change in the object being observed.
In nature, this change can actually be death.
According to a new study published in the journal Current Biology, human researchers observing endangered chimpanzees in the wild are transmitting cold viruses to the apes -- and often killing them in the process. Although it has long been believed that apes could catch viruses from their observers, this is the first study that has shown this can also result in their deaths.
The deaths aren't immediate. The viruses leave the chimpanzees vulnerable to bacterial infections, which in turn prove fatal.
The problem is that in order to observe species like chimpanzees properly, you need to be pretty darn close. Close enough to sneeze on, as it turns out.
Humans or animals in zoos can fight off infections with antibiotics. But animals in natural settings don't have that option. And of course, the question of humans giving wild animals antibiotics raises philosophical issues (researchers, like journalists, are supposed to be "hands off" and not get involved with their subjects), which in turn brings us right back around to the observer effect.
Meanwhile, there's one more observer effect already changing things: the presence of researchers and eco-tourists has a tendency to keep poachers away. Stop observing the chimps because you're afraid of infecting them, according to this study, and you're much more likely to see them killed off by humans anyway.
Good news all around, huh?
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