Chimpanzees train the next generation simply by sharing tools. 

Introduction

Beneath a forested canopy in the Republic of Congo’s Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, wild chimpanzees gain valuable termite-fishing skills. In this outdoor ape classroom, mothers pass tools––and knowledge––to the next generation.

Living in social communities of 15-150 members, these chimpanzees travel in small groups during the day, hunting and foraging for foods like fruit, honey, and insects. The young stay with, feed with, and learn from their mothers for 7-10 years before becoming fully independent.

Two chimpanzees carry fishing probe tools
Image: Ian Nichols

Two chimpanzees carry long stems to use as termite fishing probes. 

Wild chimpanzee in tree

A chimpanzee observed in Goualougo Triangle Ape Project.

Adult female chimpanzee
Image: unknown

This dominant adult female, observed by researchers in the Goulougo Triangle ape project.

The Strategy

Chimps are famously humanity’s closest living relatives, sharing 98.7% of our genetic code. This has heightened their reputation for their intelligence and tool use. They are also highly adaptable and heavily influenced by human presence. But the wild chimpanzees in the remote Goualougo Triangle, a dense lowland forest located between two rivers, have had little or no human contact. Hidden video technology at termite nest sites provided a chance to observe wild behaviors few had seen before.

Cameras captured video of tool sharing behavior, the first observed and documented evidence in wild apes that fits scientific criteria for teaching. Adult chimpanzees select long plant stems to poke into huge termite nests and extract a hearty insect snack. When younger chimps want to try, they beg and the adults hand over their termite-gathering tools.

video thumbnail

Even without intent or instruction, simply providing the tool for the job is a form of teaching. But adults aren’t only out to teach. They’re still trying to feed themselves as well, so these teacher-mothers approach the termite nests prepared. Instead of losing their utensils completely, the adults have a backup plan: sometimes carrying multiple tools or dividing their own herb stems in half lengthwise to make two useful tools, so both teacher and student can catch a meal.

video thumbnail

Even without intent or instruction, simply providing the tool for the job is a form of teaching. But adults aren’t only out to teach. They’re still trying to feed themselves as well, so these teacher-mothers approach the termite nests prepared. Instead of losing their utensils completely, the adults have a backup plan: sometimes carrying multiple tools or dividing their own herb stems in half lengthwise to make two useful tools, so both teacher and student can catch a meal.

The Potential

Teaching through sharing has led to developing efficient new strategies to both spread the lesson and minimize impact on the teacher. It fosters sustainable ways to fulfill the demands of less skilled community members and multiplies learning opportunities. How might humans put similar approaches to use?

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Last Updated February 16, 2021