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Wild chimps filmed teaching their children how to use tools for first time

Mothers will make toothbrush-style probes for their offspring, who beg to be given a better one if they struggle

Ian Johnston
Science Correspondent
Thursday 13 October 2016 09:54 BST
Chimpanzees filmed teaching children to use tools for first time

Wild chimpanzee mothers have been filmed teaching their children to use tools – toothbrush-style probes to fish for termites – for the first time.

Tool-use was once seen as a distinct feature of humans but it has since been discovered in a number of animals from great apes to birds.

However, the videos show that education is also not confined to humans with young chimps being deliberately taught how to make the best kind of tool for the job, instead of having to watch an adult then work it out for themselves.

The film was shot by camera traps set up around a termites’ nest in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo by academics from Washington University in St Louis.

Researcher Stephanie Musgrave, lead author of a paper about their work in the journal Scientific Reports, said: “Wild chimpanzees are exceptional tool users, but in contrast to humans, there has been little evidence to date that adult chimpanzees teach youngsters tool skills.

“We found that mother chimpanzees in the Goualougo Triangle teach by transferring termite-fishing probes to their offspring.

“In this population, chimpanzees select specific herb species to make their fishing probes, and they produce probes that have a particular brush-tipped design.

“By sharing tools, mothers may teach their offspring the appropriate material and form for manufacturing fishing probes.”

When the mothers make and give tools to their offspring, this reduces their own ability to forage, but the young chimps “gain increased opportunity to learn tool skills and gather termites” Ms Musgrave said.

“This is the first such evidence satisfying these criteria for teaching in wild apes,” she added.

“Identifying teaching among wild animals is difficult because one has to quantify the impact of possible teaching behaviours on both the teacher and the learner.

“Using video footage from remote camera traps placed at termite nests in the chimpanzees’ home range, we were able to observe and quantify how sharing tools affected those who relinquished their tools as well as those who received them.

“Studying how young chimpanzees learn the tool skills particular to their group helps us to understand the evolutionary origins of culture and technology and to clarify how human cultural abilities are similar to or different from those of our closest living relatives.”

In one video, a female adult split her own fishing probe lengthwise and gave one half to her child.

She started using her half to fish for termites while the youngster did the same successfully.

n another film, the mother swapped her fishing probe for her child's after the youngster failed to bring up any termites. She then altered the child's probe and used it herself.

Another female chimp gave her child a fishing probe then went off to get material to make another. Offspring were also filmed begging for a tool from their mothers.

Professor Crickette Sanz, a co-author of the study from Washington University, said: “It is easy for us to take for granted the importance of sharing information to learn complex skills, as it is ubiquitous in humans.

“Our research shows that the evolutionary origins of this behaviour are likely rooted in contexts where particular skills are too challenging for an individual to invent on their own.”

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