Wild chimpanzees outsmart human hunters
Chimps in Guinea have learned to deactivate hunters' snares, and they have begun teaching the skill to their offspring.
Tue, Jan 25, 2011 at 04:44 AM
It's not quite "Planet of the Apes" smart, but it's impressive nonetheless. Five male chimpanzees living in the forests of Guinea have begun foiling human hunters by seeking out and deactivating their snares, according to Discovery News.
Even more impressive, there is evidence that the animals are teaching younger chimps how to dismantle the snares, too. This means that the ability is more than just the cleverness of a few individuals — it's actually being culturally transmitted.
Cultural transmission is a significant advancement because it shows that the animals can learn without trial and error, which is crucial since mistakes in dealing with snares could be fatal.
"Some time in the past, an individual that had been ensnared might have started this behavior," explained Gaku Ohashi, co-author of the study that recorded the chimp behavior. "Young chimpanzees acquired this technique without any injuries."
Ohashi and his colleague Tetsuro Matsuzawa spent time with the Guinea chimps from July 2002 to March 2003 and then again from April to Sept. 2004, during which time they witnessed six instances where five different wild male chimps deactivated the snares they encountered.
In one of the more telling instances, a male chimpanzee that had already displayed an ability to deactivate snares was traveling with a few other adult chimps and a 6-year-old juvenile male when the group stumbled upon a snare. Rather than deactivate the snare himself, the experienced adult male chimpanzee instead sat back and observed as the juvenile systematically untied the snare's ropes and deactivated it himself.
Vernon Reynolds, a primate expert who works at another forest in Uganda where chimps also encounter snares, told Discovery News that the observations made in Guinea are "exceptional, not having been reported from any other site."
One reason that the behavior might be unique to the chimps in Guinea could be that the apes there are not actually the targets of the hunters' snares, which is a luxury compared to chimps in many other parts of Africa where bushmeat from apes is prized.
As Ohashi explains: "At Bossou [in Guinea], hunters are trying to catch cane rats. [They] do not eat chimpanzees because they think of chimps as the reincarnation of their ancestors."
The snares are nevertheless dangerous to any animals that might accidentally stumble across them, including chimps. But Ohashi hopes that local reverence for the apes, the apes' own ingenuity, plus better education at locations where the snares are used could eventually eliminate the threat to Guinea's chimps entirely.