Welcome Your New Primate Overlords: Chimp Tech Is on the Rise

While the human tech world rages and swoons over the new iPad, our primate cousins are at the height of what Discovery News is calling the Great Chimp Tech Boom. Poking at ants with a stick hardly seems like a newly integrated, top-of-the-line technological feat. But for chimpanzees, this recent development in “cultural variation,” or behavior specific to a community rather than a species as a whole, is more important than you’d expect. According to renowned British anthropologist Jane Goodall, technology among chimpanzees is improving and being adopted more rapidly than previously expected.

Just a couple of chimpanzees fishing for ants with tools they built. No big deal. Image: Robert O’Malley

Chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than any other living species — so closely, in fact, that in 2003 a team of biologists suggested moving chimps to the human branch of the family tree. It’s unsurprising, then, that chimpanzees also exhibit the highest rate of cultural variation of any non-human species. A team of evolutionary anthropologists and other animal behavior researchers, including Goodall, have identified at least 39 community-specific behaviors within different groups of chimps, which range from methods of swatting flies (some groups use leaves, while others employ the ‘index squash,’ or one-fingered smash-it-till-it’s-dead method) to variations on simple tools, like using stones to crack open nuts versus smashing them against the ground with a heavy piece of wood, for example.

Ant fishing (that’s the “poking at ants with a stick” thing) is an amazing example of cultural variation for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it requires a tool (that’s the stick), which is used to retrieve super-tasty ants and termites from their nests with ease. And even the stick has seen improvements; in 2009 a group of chimps were observed fraying the ends of their sticks to allow more surface area for catching ants and termites. But there’s another, more important reason ant fishing is a big deal: it’s the first novel adaptation outside of captivity that we’ve witnessed moving from one group into another. (The study’s authors call this “intercommunity cultural transmission.”) According to a new report in the latest issue of Current Anthropology, ant fishing is really catching on, and it’s all thanks to a sharp-witted chimp named Trezia.

Trezia is a wild chimpanzee who lives in Gombe Stream National Park, home to Jane Goodall (the report’s co-author) and her beloved Kasekela chimpanzee community. When Trezia was transferred to the Kasekela group from the separate Mitumba community, her wit and ease made her a favorite among her new family. But the Kaseleka chimps didn’t fish for ants. But they learned how eventually, because Trezia didn’t stop fishing for ants just because she lived in a new group. For her, this was normal, everyday behavior; in 1982, ant fishing was declared a customary behavior within Trezia’s Mitumba home group. It appeared in 1994 in the Kaseleka group (after Trezia’s relocation), and as of 2010 is considered customary there as well.

Of course, chimps aren’t the only primates to surprise observers with their technological prowess. Young gorillas have recently been spotted dismantling snare traps left by poachers, a development that’s both incredible and something of a relief. An ingenious Japanese macaque named Imo figured out that washing the grit off of sweet potatoes made them better to eat, and in so doing taught an entire population of macaques to wash their food. And in a group of capuchin monkeys in Brazil, not only is cracking palm nuts with stones the preferred method of midday snack procurement, the monkeys are choosing the optimal stones for the job by testing the rocks for sturdiness and weight before wasting any time using them as hammers. What’s next? Our money is on agriculture and figure-flattering winter wear.