Chimpanzees can learn how to use tools without observing others

New observations have lead researchers to believe that chimpanzees can use tools spontaneously to solve a task, without needing to watch others first.

The evidence of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) spontaneously using sticks to scoop food from water surfaces is published in the open-access journal PeerJ.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham, UK, and University of Tübingen, Germany, looked for the spontaneous re-occurrence of a tool-use behaviour practiced in wild chimpanzees where sticks are used to ‘scoop’ algae from the top of water surfaces.

Chimpanzees at Twycross Zoo, 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 behavioural repertoire (what the authors call “latent solutions”).

Elisa Bandini explained, “The commonly held belief is that chimpanzee behaviour is cultural, much like how human culture has been passed between groups. But if that was the case, the same behaviours 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.

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

The University of Birmingham and Twycross Zoo has a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which promotes teaching, research and other activities for the mutual benefit of both parties. This research was conducted under the MoU agreement, using Twycross’ extensive history with, and in caring for, primates.

Notes to editors

Read the full paper.

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  • Twycross Zoo is an award-winning conservation charity and visitor attraction that welcomes around 500,000 people a year to its 80-acre site in Leicestershire, funds and conducts scientific research, and has an award-winning education and outreach programme.
  • Now celebrating over 50 years of business, Twycross Zoo is one of the UK’s major zoos and home to one of the largest primate collections in Europe. The zoo cares for around 150 species of animals and is the only place in the UK, and one of four worldwide, to see all four types of great ape (gorilla, orangutan, chimpanzee and bonobo) and a wide collection of gibbons.