Chimpanzees are not afraid to ask for attention. This great ape is the closest relative to humans and has efficient ways of communicating its needs.
Researchers have seen chimps in captivity pointing at an object that they want to be given by their caregivers. Young chimps out in the wild throwing tantrums to get the attention of their mother.
These behaviors were only observed in chimpanzees that are begging for something. Scientists recently recorded footage of an adult wild chimpanzee giving her mother a leaf. This was apparently to share the experience, according to a Monday study in the journal PNAS.
Researchers said that more examples of these interactions are required to better understand the intent behind the gesture. However, this observation could prove that chimpanzees have a social behavior previously thought to be limited to humans.
“Critically, she didn’t want her mom doing anything with the leaf. … She seems just to be showing it. It’s almost like she’s saying, “Look, look, it’s cool!'” Katie Slocombe, the coauthor of the study and a professor of psychology at York University in the United Kingdom, said.
Researchers call the mother-daughter chimps Sutherland (or Fiona) part of Ngogo chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda. Slocombe and her coworkers were studying Fiona with her infant in a separate project about their wider social group. They captured footage of Fiona holding out the leaf to her mother and then returning it once Sutherland was interested.
Slocombe stated that Slocombe’s first encouraging kind of suggestion suggests that the behavior might not be unique to humans and that chimpanzees might have the ability and motivation to perform this behavior.
Fiona was involved in “leaf grooming,” which researchers refer to as a behavior where chimpanzees manipulate and stroke leaves. Although the reason behind this behavior is unknown, Slocombe and her coworkers suspect that it may be due to Slocombe inspecting an ectoparasite (such as a tick) on the leaf. Many times, chimpanzees around the leaf are also engrossed in its grooming.
“When Fiona was doing it, (Sutherland), didn’t seem interested. She wasn’t paying attention and she wasn’t looking at her. Slocombe stated that Fiona then shows her the leaf and says, “Look at it!” “She’s persistent in trying to get her mother to look at it. It wasn’t until her mom dropped her entire head to orient the leaf that Fiona seemed satisfied.
Researchers examined 84 videos of chimpanzees snatching leaves from at least one person to determine if there was a reason for the behavior that was not commonly observed. There was a wide range of ages in the sample, with both male and female chimps being observed.
The study team discovered that in over 75% of cases, another person had approached the leaf groomer, or watched closely. Most of the videos showed that leaf grooming didn’t initiate any social activity, such as playing with or eating the leaf together, and the researchers concluded that Fiona was just sharing her experience with another ape.
“Human infants will begin to bring items that interest them to their caregivers from around 10 months old. They will do the same as Fiona and extend their arms with the object in hand toward their caregiver. Slocombe stated that caregivers who don’t react will readjust their behavior and continue to do so until they see the object.
Slocombe and her colleagues always keep a distance of 23 feet (7 meters) when they observe chimpanzees wild. This is to ensure that they don’t disturb them. This is a standard practice that eliminates the possibility that this behavior was learned from humans.
“Chimpanzees have been seen to put ectoparasites (found while grooming) on leaves and then try to smash them. Although I don’t know if this is true, Fiona appears to take something out of her mouth, then place it on the leaf. She then shows it’ to her mother,” Simone Pika, head of Comparative BioCognition, University of Osnabruck, Germany.
Pika wasn’t involved in the research, but her team observes chimpanzees at Ngogo. They plan to continue looking for additional evidence and clarification.
Pika stated that “we are only beginning to understand the communicative complexity in chimpanzees” and its implications for human language and cognition evolution. We need more data to determine if wild chimpanzees use declarative gestures, and what their function is.
Slocombe stated that this is the first time Slocombe has seen this behavior in the wild. It suggests that apes are motivated to share their experiences. Slocombe hopes that it will inspire others who work with chimpanzees in captivity or in the wild to find more examples.
“I’m hopeful that the publication of this result will catalyze other researchers who have studied chimps long enough, or maybe have lots of video footage, to think, “Oh, hang on. Slocombe stated that chimps have done similar things before but it wasn’t something I thought was significant.
“Maybe then we can get multiple examples to test whether the motivations of the chimps are similar to human motivation.”