Poop-throwing by chimps may actually be a sign of intelligence
Researchers have found that the smartest chimps also fling their feces the most accurately.
Sun, Dec 04 2011 at 1:12 AM
Tossing feces with pinpoint accuracy may not immediately strike you as sophisticated behavior, but researchers studying the brain activity of captive chimpanzees have found that the smartest apes also happen to pitch their poop most accurately, according to Physorg.com.
Bill Hopkins of Emory University, who spent the last several years observing the throwing accuracy and brain scans of chimpanzees, had a hunch that this behavior had a deeper significance.
Particularly curious to Hopkins was that chimpanzees are the only species besides humans known to regularly throw objects with a clear target in mind. Since chimps are our closest living biological relatives, Hopkins wondered if the throwing behavior had some sort of connection with higher-order intelligence.
Not too surprisingly, Hopkins discovered that the chimps that threw more often and more accurately, also showed heightened development in the motor cortex — an area of the brain involved in the planning, control, and execution of voluntary motor functions. But Hopkins also noticed something more surprising: the most throw-happy chimps also displayed a richer network of connections between their motor cortex and their Broca’s areas, which is a brain area important for speech in humans.
Does this mean that throwing poop is some sort of evolutionary stepping stone toward language development? Well, not necessarily. But it does give credence to the idea that speech and throwing are perhaps related.
After making the discovery, Hopkins tested the chimps again and found that those that could throw better also appeared to be better communicators within their group. He also noticed that the better throwers didn't seem to have any other particular physical advantage over other chimps — they weren't necessarily more athletic or stronger. Researchers surmised that throwing may not have developed as a means of hunting, but rather as some form of rudimentary communication.
In other words, it's possible that throwing stuff at someone else became a form of self expression at some point — it might actually be a way of saying hello. Or in the case of flinging poo, perhaps a way of playing a practical joke.
Though this finding is unlikely to make any zoo visits that involve getting hit by chimp poop any more enjoyable, perhaps it will at least give us pause before using such behavior as an excuse to look down upon our ape cousins.