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Researchers dig into why nose-picking is a common behavior

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And now the latest research on picking your nose. That's right - scientists have actually found that nose-picking may be more common among animals than previously thought, and who else but NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Anne-Claire Fabre has a serious title. She's the curator of mammals at the Museum of Natural History in Bern, Switzerland. How did she get interested in nose-picking as a scientific topic?

ANNE-CLAIRE FABRE: So it was pure serendipity.

BRUMFIEL: And here's the serendipitous moment that started it all. She was at Duke Lemur Center, studying aye-ayes, a type of primate that looks like a cross between a fox and a monkey. She was watching one of them, when it started to pick its nose.

FABRE: And when I saw that, it was just, oh. Wow.

BRUMFIEL: Wow because aye-ayes have very long fingers - almost like needles - and their nasal cavity are tiny. How could this aye-aye get its finger all the way up that little nose? Answering that question launched Fabre on a journey of discovery. She searched the scientific literature for the latest findings on nose-picking, studied medical scans of aye-aye heads and fingers, built a computer model of how the finger could fit. And in the end, she concluded that, yes, she wasn't seeing things. This wasn't some trick of the light.

FABRE: It was putting the entire finger inside.

BRUMFIEL: So it's going all the way up through the nose, back into the throat?

FABRE: Yeah.

BRUMFIEL: And then it comes back out again, and they eat their boogers?

FABRE: Yeah, exactly.

BRUMFIEL: And Fabre says aye-ayes aren't unique. I mean, OK, first of all, humans - top primate on the planet - I think all eight billion of us have done a little pick-and-flick at some point. But orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas - they do it, too. Fabre says this appears to be common behavior for primates.

FABRE: We all pick our noses and eat our boogers.

BRUMFIEL: You keep coming back to eating the boogers. That seems to be very important to your research.

FABRE: (Laughter).

BRUMFIEL: So why is eating so central? Like, what do you think's going on there?

FABRE: I have no idea, and it's why I'm trying to find a way to investigate that more deeply.

BRUMFIEL: Investigate more deeply?

FABRE: Yes.

BRUMFIEL: One theory is that boogers contain salts and other proteins that are just tasty. Another is it could boost the immune system. She believes the answer is out there. We have to keep digging.

FABRE: I'm sure that we are digging for gold.

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter) This little scientific nugget was published in the Journal of Zoology, and Fabre says she hopes there's more to come. In addition to that booger-eating question, she wants to know what other animals pick their noses - opossums? Raccoons? Squirrels? Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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