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Tool Use Comes Naturally to Chimpanzees

A new study has found that chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) can use tools spontaneously to solve a task, without needing to watch others first.

Chimpanzee tool-use is fuelled mainly by individual learning, according to the study. Image credit: Marcel Langthim.

Chimpanzee tool-use is fuelled mainly by individual learning, according to the study. Image credit: Marcel Langthim.

University of Birmingham researchers Elisa Bandini and Claudio Tennie looked for the spontaneous re-occurrence of a tool-use behavior practiced in wild chimpanzees where sticks are used to ‘scoop’ algae from the top of water surfaces.

Captive chimpanzees at Twycross Zoo in the UK were provided with a container of water with pieces of floating food.

The tested chimpanzees successfully used the sticks, and moreover, spontaneously showed the same underlying action pattern — a scooping action of the stick — as their wild cousins do.

The results challenge the accepted belief that chimpanzees need to learn from each other how to use tools, and instead suggest that some — if not all — forms of tool-use are instead within their pre-existing behavioral repertoire (so-called ‘latent solutions’).

“The commonly held belief is that chimpanzee behavior is cultural, much like how human culture has been passed between groups,” Dr. Bandini said.

“But if that was the case, the same behaviors should never re-occur in naïve subjects.”

“Nobody, for example, could accurately reinvent extinct languages on the spot.”

Due to the close genetic ties between humans and chimpanzees, it is likely that naïve individuals also spontaneously invented some forms of early human material culture.

“Given these results, the long-held assumption that apes must observe one another in order to show these behaviors may have been due to an illusion of cultural transmission — created by the apes arriving at the same behavior independently,” Dr. Tennie said.

The research is published in the journal PeerJ.

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E. Bandini C. Tennie. 2017. Spontaneous reoccurrence of “scooping”, a wild tool-use behaviour, in naïve chimpanzees. PeerJ 5: e3814; doi: 10.7717/peerj.3814

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