Chimp Mothers Teach Offspring to Use Tools

The first evidence of wild chimpanzee moms showing their young to use tools has been documented, researchers say.

<p><em>Courtesy of Michael Nichols</em><span></span></p>

For the first time, according to researchers, adult chimp mothers in the wild have been documented teaching tool use to their offspring.

Anthropologists from Washington University in St. Louis shot video footage of the activity during field work in the Goualougo Triangle of the Republic of Congo. The recording captured mother chimpanzees handing off termite-fishing poles to their young. The hand-offs met the criteria for what the scientists call "tool transfer."

"Tool transfers are costly for mothers, whose ability to forage for termites is reduced, but are beneficial for offspring, who gain increased opportunity to learn tool skills and gather termites," said Stephanie Musgrave, the study's lead author, in a statement. "This is the first such evidence satisfying these criteria for teaching in wild apes."

It's been well documented that chimps fashion tools but, said Musgrave, "little evidence to date that adult chimpanzees teach youngsters tool skills."

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The termite probes were chosen from select herb stems by the chimps and intentionally modified to have brush-tipped ends. "By sharing tools," explained Musgrave, "mothers may teach their offspring the appropriate material and form for manufacturing fishing probes."

In this video shot by the researchers, an adult female chimp at a termite nest hands a fishing probe to her offspring, who uses it to successfully fish for termites:

click to play video

The researchers say their work can help inform our understanding of how skills are passed on.

"It is easy for us to take for granted the importance of sharing information to learn complex skills, as it is ubiquitous in humans," said study co-author Crickette Sanz. "Our research shows that the evolutionary origins of this behavior are likely rooted in contexts where particular skills are too challenging for an individual to invent on their own."

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What's more, the effort to learn more about chimpanzee tool use may have something to say about individual cultures. Different groups of chimps make different types of tools, and how the young ones learn to make and use them may be specific to local settings.

Indeed, said Musgrave, "studying how young chimpanzees learn the tool skills particular to their group helps us to understand the evolutionary origins of culture and technology and to clarify how human cultural abilities are similar to or different from those of our closest living relatives."

The team's findings have been published in the journal Scientific Reports.