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.

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

  1. I wouldn't be a geek if I didn't call you out on this… there's actually no evidence of teaching in chimpanzees, though it's been looked for. Chimps are more or less though to be incapable of teaching. What they are able to do is notice what others are doing, play around with the objects (stick & ant next in this case) and come up with the same solution.

    • It's still teaching, albait in a passive manner. The chimps don't actively engage in the act of teaching, but simply by doing something that is more efficient, other chimps will notice and copy it.

    • This is true. I'll swap out that sentence with "But they learned from Trezia." She didn't hold a workshop or anything, but without getting too deep into the finer details of social transmission and the arguments for and against the existence of culture in nonhuman groups, it's the point of the Current Anthropology article (and this post, by extension) is that a behavior developed in one wild chimpanzee group was observed in another, and though it can't be entirely ruled out that both groups developed the same process independently, the timing of Trezia's introduction to the Kaseleka community and then the group's subsequent adoption of ant fishing by the same technique overwhelmingly suggest that she is the tie that now binds these two communities together.

      Briefly, though, an easy-to-parse explanation. Social transmission is concept that describes learned behavior through social contact or observation, but not by instruction. So Trezia came from a group in which ant fishing was a customary behavior. That means everybody (except the very old) fished for ants because Wiseguy Chimp figured out that 60% of the time, putting a stick in an ant's nest works every time, and he kept doing it. Other chimps saw Wiseguy eating his ant-sicles day after day after day, and eventually figured out how to make their own. (This is where variation enters the picture, like the one chimp's frayed ant-fishing pole.) Over time, as more chimps in the same age and social group as Wiseguy Chimp are fishing for ants, they're inadvertently "teaching" their children to do it, too. And babies learn quickly, and have near-constant exposure to mom's behavior because a baby chimp spends pretty much its entire babyhood hanging from mom's neck. So baby chimps then know that an ant-sickle exists, and when it comes time for them to procure lunch for themselves, they're going to want one. Same process, so on and so forth, until you have an entire community of chimpanzees who have gleaned through repetitive observation and play (or more clinically, experimentation) how to fish for ants. Trezia was born into a community that already established ant fishing as a customary behavior.

      Now take Trezia, one of the ant-fishing chimps, and pop her into a community that has never fished for ants. Bam. 20 years later you have an entire community of chimps who all know what Wiseguy Chimp figured out sometime in the late 70s: Ant-sicles are freaking delicious. How do they know? Exposure to Trezia, who discovered the anty goodness as a baby and became this new group's own Wiseguy Chimp. How do they *not* know? Directed instruction.

      Obviously this is super-simplified and specific to this piece of news. If you're really interested in this as it applies to people, Google "cultural anthropology". If you want more on cultural anthropology as it applies (or arguably does *not* apply) to nonhuman species, I'd start with checking out Jane Goodall and working from there.

  2. Trap dismantling apes? Might be a good time to give up being a poacher, because you know that those apes are going to start coming for you eventually. Don't come to me looking for help either. Very cool article. I wonder what would happen if we taught a chimp to actively teach other chimps and to pass it on. Surely nothing bad could come of it.

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