Saturday, September 3, 2016
How chimps are dedicated followers of fashion
How chimps are dedicated followers of fashion: They love looking in the mirror and copying the latest trends - just like us
• Chimpanzees love fashion and also looking at themselves in the mirror
• But the animals don't just use the mirrors to check their appearance
• They use them to examine areas they can't see, such as inside their mouths
Chimpanzees love the latest fad or craze every bit as much as humans do — even when it makes them look ridiculous.
At a sanctuary in Zambia, one female invented a fashion statement by sticking a long stalk of grass into her ear and leaving it there as she made her way around the family group, grooming each of the others in turn. It was a distinctive look, and soon other apes were adopting it.
The stalk serves no purpose. It doesn't do anything, but years later this group of chimps are still, uniquely, wearing grass in their ears.
And a female orangutan called Suma, at Osnabruck Zoo, Germany, during the Seventies, went even further: she would collect cabbage leaves, sift through them and choose one to press onto her head.
Chimpanzees love looking at themselves in the mirror and are 'dedicated followers of fashion'
Then she'd inspect herself in the mirror, trying the leaf at different jaunty angles.
During a career of studying animal behaviour stretching back more than 40 years, I've often seen chimps riding a new trend. At the world's largest chimpanzee colony, in Royal Burgers' Zoo in Arnhem, Holland, a group I was studying came up with a game we called 'cooking'.
They'd dig a hole in the dirt, collect water by holding a bucket under a tap and pour the water into the hole. Then they'd sit around the hole poking the mud with a stick, as if stirring soup.
Sometimes there would be three or four holes on the go at the same time, keeping half the group busy.
And Wolfgang Kohler, who studied primate behaviour before World War II, witnessed chimps devising a new dance. They'd march in single file, stamping one foot down hard and stepping lightly with the other as they trotted around and around a post, while wagging their heads in time to the rhythm.
Like all fashion victims, chimps love mirrors. They use them not just to check their appearance, but to examine areas that they can't see, such as the inside of their mouths. Females always turn around to look at their own bottoms — something that males don't care about.
A lifetime of studying these astonishing animals has taught me that they are far more intelligent than most scientists realise.
They follow complex social rules, caring for each other, and understanding each other's viewpoints, even their emotions.
One ageing female at Arnhem was having trouble walking — so the younger females would go to the tap, collect a mouthful of water and then come back to dribble it into the old ape's open mouth.
Similar behaviour has been observed in the wild, by British primatologist Jane Goodall.
She described how one elderly animal, dubbed Madame Bee, had become too weak to climb trees. Bee would patiently wait at the bottom for her daughter to carry down armfuls of fruit, which the pair would then contentedly eat together.
What is most impressive here is not just how the young apes solved problems, but the fact that they perceived other apes had problems. The chimps were able to appreciate life from a different viewpoint — an ability scientists once believed was particular to humans.
Many researchers still refuse to let go of that belief.
I was at a symposium recently to discuss altruism, where a prominent child psychologist loudly told an audience: 'No ape will ever jump into a lake to save another!'
I had to point out that there are several reports of apes doing exactly this — even though they are not naturally able to swim.
Another psychologist, America's Michael Tomasella, has proclaimed that humans are the only creatures capable of working together to achieve their goals. His dictum is: 'It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.'
That's a striking statement, and one that just isn't true.
At Royal Burgers' Zoo there were beech tree saplings in the chimp enclosure, protected by a circle of electrified wire. I have watched two chimps using long sticks as ladders, to get over the wire: one holds the stick, and the other scales it to reach the tender leaves without getting a shock.
At my office in Yerkes National Primate Research Centre, in Atlanta, Georgia, two adolescent females often try to spy on me by peering through my first-floor window.
Together, they roll an oil drum up to the building's wall, and one stands on the drum while the other climbs onto her shoulders. Then, in a synchronised movement, they bounce up and down, so that a cheeky chimpanzee face keeps popping up outside the window.
But the most extraordinary instance was the so-called Great Escape of Arnhem.
One night, after all the people had gone home, the chimps dragged a gigantic tree trunk, far too heavy for a single animal to move, to the perimeter wall and propped it up. Then 25 of them scrambled out of the enclosure — and raided the zoo restaurant.
Co-operation doesn't have to be so dramatic to be impressive. One day I was watching a female called Krom, who was trying to scoop water from a tyre hanging on a log.
Unfortunately, a row of other tyres were hanging beside it, and she couldn't lever up the one she wanted, to get her drink. For about ten minutes she wrestled with this, watched by her nephew Jakie, a smart seven-year-old.
He waited till Krom had given up, and then set patiently to work, dragging all the tyres off the log one by one. When he reached the last one, he carefully removed it so that no water was spilled, and carried it to Auntie Krom. She started to drink immediately.
You might think apes don't use social communication, that they have no way to say 'please' and 'thank you', 'hello' and 'goodbye'. But you'd be wrong.
I once trained a female chimp named Kuif to bottle-feed a baby she had adopted every few hours throughout the day and night. She was a natural nurse, and would remove the teat from the baby's mouth now and then to burp him.
When we called her inside for a feeding, Kuif would make a long detour, doing the rounds on the island to visit first the alpha male, then the alpha female and then her friends.
She'd give each one a kiss, before coming into the building — and if any of them were asleep, she'd wake them up for her goodbyes. Chimps also kiss as a greeting after separation, placing their lips gently on each other's mouth or shoulder. This resembles the human kiss of greeting.
Bonobos (once known as pygmy chimpanzees) go even further. When a zookeeper familiar with chimps once naively accepted a bonobo kiss, not knowing this species, he was taken aback by the amount of tongue that went into it!
If you're going to work with any ape, it is essential to know their behavioural codes — not just the rules of kissing, but their moods and emotions . . . and especially their tricks. One of my students came to his first encounter with chimps, against our advice, wearing a suit and tie. He insisted he was capable of dealing with these two juveniles, aged about four, because he had a lifetime's experience with dogs.
Chimpanzees, even though they look very cute when young, are ten times more cunning than dogs — and much stronger than humans.
When the student came staggering out of the test room, the two mischievous apes were still clinging to his legs. His jacket was in tatters, with both sleeves torn off. Luckily, the chimps didn't have time to discover that a tie can also be used as a noose.
One of the problems in studying chimps is that, because they are so clever, they get bored very easily. This means that in tests against monkeys, they often come off worse: their superior intelligence is actually a disadvantage.
Rhesus monkeys can perform the same simple experiment, such as identifying an object by its shape without seeing it, hundreds of times. Chimps lose interest after a dozen trials.
Their attention wanders. They pull at your clothes or try to grab you, they make faces, they bang on the windows, they jump up and down. Sometimes this behaviour proves irresistible and, rather unprofessionally, I have abandoned an experiment and joined in a game instead.
Chimpanzees enjoy laughing. I am well aware that it is crucial to avoid equating animal behaviour with human traits just because they look similar, but in this instance there is no better explanation.
When young apes are tickled, they make breathy sounds with a rhythm of inhaling and exhaling that sounds like the laughter of children. And just like children, they love being tickled even when, at the same time, they can't stand it.
I have often seen how they push away my tickling fingers and then come back begging for more, holding their breath while awaiting the next poke in the belly.
In the past our general attitude has been that we like chimpanzees to be quite like humans, but not too much. The anthropologist Desmond Morris told me that, when he was working at London Zoo in the Sixties, tea parties were still held regularly in the ape house.
Gathered on chairs around a table, the chimps had been trained to use cups, saucers and a teapot — no problem for these sophisticated, tool-using animals.
But over time, the apes' performance became too polished, which made the public feel uncomfortable. The chimps looked a little too like us. With the human ego under threat, something had to be done, and the apes were retrained to throw food around and drink from the teapot spout as soon as the keeper's back was turned.
OCTOPUSES ARE BRAINBOXES, TOO
It's not only chimpanzees and bonobos that display amazing intelligence. Many creatures exhibit intellectual abilities that must be seen to be believed.
An octopus at one aquarium was fond of raw chicken eggs, breaking them open and sucking out the contents. One day, a keeper accidentally gave it a rotten egg. The octopus shot the smelly remains over the side of its tank — straight at the human who had supplied the egg. This was no accident.
Octopuses can certainly tell people apart. In a recognition test, one keeper gave an octopus scraps of food, while another poked it gently with a bristly stick. The octopus soon learned to recognise which human was its friend, even though both keepers were wearing identical blue overalls.
When it spotted its enemy, the octopus would recoil, squirting jets of ink into the water — a typical defence mechanism. But when the other keeper arrived, it would approach, without any display of fear or hostility.
This naughty behaviour was much more popular.
In fact, chimpanzees prefer a civilised life. At Burgers', I watched two infant apes rolling and scrapping on the ground, enjoying a game that soon got out of hand.
There was screaming and hair-pulling, and the two mothers, watching their little ones fight, didn't know what to do. Of course, either of them could have waded in and broken up the fight, but that would have made matters worse.
Mothers are never impartial, and it's not unusual to see a juvenile quarrel escalate into an adult fight. Instead of intervening, one of them went across to the old matriarch, Mama, to wake her from a snooze.
Swinging an arm in the direction of the fight, the younger female pointed out the problem. Mama needed only one glance to assess the situation, and took a step forward with a threatening grunt. That shut up the squabbling youngsters in an instant. Chimps are so clever that they can assess a new situation by spotting the things that are missing. This takes imagination and a powerful sense of reasoning.
For example, one morning at Burgers', while the chimps were still in their night quarters, we showed them a crate full of grapefruits. Then we carried it, under their watchful eyes, through the door to their outside enclosure.
When we brought the crate back, it was empty — and pandemonium broke out. As soon as they saw the grapefruits were gone, 25 apes burst out hooting and hollering and slapping each other on the back.
I have never seen animals so excited about absent food. They inferred that, since grapefruits can't just vanish, we'd left these treats outside for them in the enclosure.
That was the first and only time we carried out the experiment, so it's certain that the chimps weren't responding to experience or learning by trial and error. They had taken one look and seen exactly what was going on.
Another experiment, by Charlie Menzel at the Language Research Center in Atlanta, tested a similar type of intelligence.
Late one evening, he let a female chimp called Panzee watch while he hid a bag of her favourite M&M sweets in a bush, just outside her enclosure. The bag was tantalisingly out of reach, and Panzee could do nothing about it all night.
Next morning, when the caretakers arrived, she was waiting. Charlie guessed what would happen, knowing the caretakers were very sympathetic to the chimps and would take Panzee's behaviour seriously.
Using gestures and noises, such as panting, calling, beckoning and pointing, she directed the caretakers straight to where the sweets were hidden. As the humans got closer, Panzee vigorously bobbed her head up and down, as if saying: 'Yes! Yes!'
Charlie tried the experiment again, letting Panzee see him hide sweets in all kinds of places. The chimp never got muddled, and never directed the caretakers to an old stash. As the hiding places were moved further away, Panzee would point higher, to indicate a greater distance — just as humans would.
But for sheer brainpower, there's no beating a chimp called Ayumu at the Primate Research Institute, in Kyoto University, Japan. A young male, he has a memory capable of absorbing information at lightning speed and recalling it perfectly.
Sitting at a touchscreen computer, he watches numbers one to nine flash up and then vanish. Ayumu can reproduce the sequence every time — even if the numbers appear for just one-fifth of a second.
I tried, and the best I could do was five correct digits. Ayumu gets a perfect score 80 per cent of the time. No human can match that, even memory wizards capable of memorising the order of a shuffled pack of cards.
In contests, Ayumu always emerges as the 'chimpion', and now that he is being tested on an even larger sequence of numbers, flashed up even more rapidly, the limits of what he can do are still unknown.
I have my own reason to be grateful for chimpanzees' memories. It's many years since I left Arnhem and moved to America, but I still return every year to see my ape friends.
Some of the colony were there as youngsters 30 years ago, and when I arrive they quickly pick out my face amid the crowds and greet me with an excited hooting. It seems my face is special to them. And they are all very special to me.
By Frans De Waal
• Adapted from Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?, by Frans de Waal, (Granta Books, £14.99). © Frans De Waal 2016. To buy a copy for £11.25 (Offer valid until September 10), call 0844 571 0640 or visit mailbookshop.co.uk. P&P is free on orders over £15.