Group to Group: Wild Chimpanzees Pick Up Ant-Fishing Behavior from a Female Immigrant

By Wayman, Erin | Science News, February 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

Group to Group: Wild Chimpanzees Pick Up Ant-Fishing Behavior from a Female Immigrant


Wayman, Erin, Science News


Photographer Bill Wallauer was following a group of chimpanzees in Tanzania's Gombe Stream National Park one March day when a young female caught his eye. She had climbed a tree, inserted a thin, peeled branch into a hole and was fishing out carpenter ants. Wallauer, of the Jane Goodall Institute, took out his video camera and filmed the chimp as she slurped up insects for several minutes.

What Wallauer witnessed wasn't supposed to happen. Though chimps in other areas use tools to collect carpenter ants, scientists studying the Kasekela chimp community at Gombe had rarely seen the behavior since Jane Goodall began her fieldwork there in 1960. Before Wallauer's 1994 observation, researchers had seen only one other instance of the behavior, in 1978. This type of tool use was considered a fluke.

But when Robert O'Malley, a primatologist now at Kenyon College in Gambler, Ohio, went to Gombe in the late 2000s, he noticed many of the Kasekela chimps regularly fishing for ants. He wondered why, after decades with only a couple of sporadic sightings, ant probing had become a widespread habit. Because of meticulous record keeping at Gombe, O'Malley and his colleagues had a rare opportunity to reconstruct the origin of this behavior.

An adult female immigrant who joined the Kasekela group in the early 1990s, the team concluded, introduced ant fishing, a common practice in her previous community. The finding, reported late last year in Current Antbropology, marks the first time in the more than 50-year history of chimp field studies that anyone has documented the transfer of a cultural tradition from one wild chimp group to another.

"It's something we've been waiting for forever," says William McGrew, a cultural primatologist at the University of Cambridge in England.

Research in captive chimps had suggested that they are capable of cultural exchange, but no one knew whether apes do it naturally. Uncovering and analyzing cultural spread in chimps, humans' closest living relatives, may give scientists a glimpse of what makes human culture special.

Between you and me

Most scientists who study chimps agree that the animals have a basic form of culture. A range of "customs"--everything from meal choices to tool use to courtship rituals--vary from group to group (SN: 11/17/07, p. 317). These traditions often arise within a community when one member invents something new and the behavior catches on. Primatologists have recorded many examples of this process. In the 1990s, for instance, a group of chimps in C6te d'Ivoire's Ta'i National Park started eating the leaves of two plant species in a different way, nibbling a leaf into a crescent shape and then swallowing it whole. (The purpose of this "leaf cutting" is unknown.) And in 2011 Japanese researchers reported that a chimpanzee community in the West African nation of Guinea learned how to disable snares set by hunters.

A first clue that habits might actually pass between groups came from a field experiment reported in 2003. Over a decade, researchers periodically provided wild chimps in Guinea with piles of hard-shelled coula nuts in a forest clearing. The chimps knew how to use stones as hammers but were unfamiliar with these nuts. A 30-year-old female immigrant started smashing the new nuts right away. Eventually, other individuals followed. By the end of the study, about two-thirds of the chimps cracked coula nuts whenever the researchers offered some. The scientists suspect that the pioneering immigrant recognized coula nuts as edible because she came from a group that regularly dined on them.

The new study offers more persuasive proof of natural cultural exchange and is the only documented case among chimps involving no human intervention. Like a historian piecing together the past, O'Malley combed through Gombe's records, including some of Jane Goodall's original notes, to look for instances of ant fishing. …

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