Aug 23, 2006

these chimps are no chumps

The headline on the main page reads, "Chimpanzees may not be as clever as we thought," but the linked-to article seems to say exactly the opposite, reporting that two groups of primates have invented a particular tool use at roughly the same time. The kicker: geographic isolation all but rules out any "cultural transmission."
Some new research from Cameroon has just clobbered one of the favourite theories, that such useful tricks are seldom invented afresh in the wild, so if they spread at all, it’s through gradual “cultural” dissemination of the skill through the families and descendents of the original, inventive ape.

A great example of this is in western Africa, where the ability of chimpanzees to crack nuts with stones was thought to be confined to forests West of the N’Zo-Sassandra River in Cote d’Ivoire. The river, uncrossable by chimpanzees, was considered to be a physical barrier beyond which the nut-cracking skill stood no chance of spreading. And all the evidence pointed that way.

Till now, that is. Bethan Morgan and Ekwoge Abwe of the Zoological Society of San Diego’s Conservation for Endangered Species facility have now put a spanner in the works by discovering chimps doing the same thing in the wild 1700 kilometres to the east, in Cameroon.
A better title, then, might be, "Humans not as clever at figuring out chimp behavior as we once thought." Given our history of underestimating animal intelligence, this is no surprise.

Incidentally, the abstract is here, but it's no help to a nonsubscriber.

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