Chimpanzees can team up to get what they want, and a fresh study from European researchers provides new proof that the problem-solving primates intentionally put their heads — and their tools — together to work toward a common goal. At least they will if the goal is a tasty bunch of grapes. And if the researchers design the experiment so that they have no other choice.
That’s the conclusion from researchers at UK’s Warwick Business School and Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, who recently published their results in Biology Letters. And if you’re wondering why a business school is studying chimp teamwork, well, maybe you should have worked in some of my offices. Heh.
“Chimpanzees’ limitations in collaboration are, perhaps, more motivational than cognitive,” the scientists report. Sound familiar?
The study was performed at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya, where orphaned chimps that can’t be returned to the wild can find a home for life.
The subjects were paired up, with one chimp in front and one in back of a sealed plastic box that only gives up the grapes if one chimp can push them onto a platform inside of the box with a rake and the other chimp then tilts the platform with a stick to make them fall down where they can be reached by both chimps.
Then the researchers gave one chimp both tools.
They knew from previous studies that chimpanzees are plenty smart enough to solve the problem. However, given the choice, they’re more likely to tackle the job on their own. For example, a previous study by Max Planck Institute revealed that, if there’s no payoff to teamwork, chimps will involve the other guy 58 percent of the time while human children will use a friend 78 percent of the time.
The new study was designed to make it impossible to get the grapes if the chimps didn’t work together.
Alicia Melis, one of the study’s authors, noted some chimps were smarter than others, and two of the 12 duos never caught on to the fact that the chimp with both tools would have to pass the correct one to her partner.
But, once the light dawned, the chimp team wouldn’t forget the lesson. “After transferring a tool once, they subsequently transferred tools in 97 per cent of the trials and successfully worked together to get the grapes in 86 per cent of the trials,” she said.
A 2006 video from BBC Worldwide gives you a peek inside a previous experiment used to prove that chimpanzees will team up to get the banana:
[Photo: three chimpanzees teamed up at Miami Metrozoo courtesy Matthew Hoelscher and Wikipedia]