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Chimps Throw Stones at Trees in Mysterious New Behavior

Chimpanzees in West Africa have been filmed exhibiting a never-before-seen behavior.

In behavior never before seen, chimpanzees in West Africa have been filmed picking up stones and throwing them at trees, all the while making "hooting" vocalizations.

The resulting accumulation of stones either next to or in the hollows of the trees has created a new puzzle for chimp researchers:

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA) made the discovery with the help of camera traps, placed after field teams noticed piles of stones next to trees at some of their dozens of research sites.

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The behavior was exhibited primarily by adult male chimps, but the scientists said some females and juveniles were also seen throwing the stones.

Data on these observations have just been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

"This study reports a new chimpanzee behavior not known," said Christophe Boesch, a study co-author from the MPI-EVA, in a press release. "As the stone accumulation behavior does not seem to be linked to either the abundance of stones or the availability of suitable trees in an area, it is likely that it has some cultural elements."

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Chimps are known to use tools when foraging for food, such as using sticks to poke around for termites or to extract honey or ants. They'll also use stone or wooden "hammers" to smash nuts open.

But the researchers say the stone-throwing activity doesn't seem to have anything to do with foraging.

"This represents the first record of repeated observations of individual chimpanzees exhibiting stone tool use for a purpose other than extractive foraging at what appear to be targeted trees," the authors of the study wrote.

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Why chimps might throw stones in this manner is still an open question. But the researchers have some ideas.

Study co-author Laura Kehoe wrote in The Conversation that the scientists' current theories revolve around the rock-throwing being part of a male display; a sort of pathway or territory signpost; or perhaps even a marking of "sacred trees."

Of the latter, Kehoe wrote: "Indigenous West African people have stone collections at 'sacred' trees and such man-made stone collections are commonly observed across the world and look eerily similar to what we have discovered here."

Researchers on the study have been working under the aegis of the collaborative "Pan African Program: The Cultured Chimpanzee," which has, since 2010, gathered data on chimpanzees across 39 research sites in Africa. Its public website Chimp&See lets visitors pore over video gathered by the program.

This collection of stones inside a tree hollow might look innocuous, until you remind yourself that chimps did it. The elusive question is "why?"

Laughs and smiles in chimps turn out to be far more human-like than previously thought and they date to at least 5 million years ago, suggests a new study on chimpanzee facial expressions and vocalizations. Laughter is not 100 percent identical between the two primates, but people who hear a chuckling chimp usually have little trouble figuring out what the sound generally means. Chimps go "h-h-h," while humans sound more like "ha-ha-ha" or "he-he-he," said Marina Davila Ross, a senior lecturer in the University of Portsmouth's Department of Psychology and lead author of the study in PLOS ONE. Then there is the flexibility of the sounds and related expressions. "Chimpanzees, like humans, can produce their facial expressions free from their vocalizations," Ross explained. "This ability is important for humans. For instance, it allows us to add a smile while talking or laughing, and we can also produce smiles silently. Until now, we did not know that non-human primates also have this ability." It's even possible that the skills first emerged in the common ancestor of chimps and humans.

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In both humans and chimps, facial expressions associated with laughter and happiness usually involve an open mouth with a display of teeth. "Open mouth expressions, otherwise known as play faces, or as we call them, laugh faces, typically expose the lower teeth by virtue of the mouth being wide or stretched open," co-author Kim Bard, who is a professor of comparative developmental psychology at the University of Portsmouth, told Discovery News. "We found that there were many types of open mouth expressions, including some configurations with the upper lip drawn up, which sometimes exposes the upper teeth."

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Little Callie the chimp, shown in this photo, is enjoying a good laugh with a human friend. Chimps, like people, sometimes laugh and smile when they are alone, too. "We know that laughter and open mouth faces occur mostly during play, but they can occur in solitary play as well as social play," Bard said. "So our current theory is that laughter (in chimps) is typically associated with feelings of joy."

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Both young chimps and children tend to laugh and smile a lot, probably because they play more than adults do (and have less to worry about). But why would teeth be exposed as a sign of friendliness? Some experts suspect that the open mouth/exposed teeth expression, during non-threatening play times, allows the other individual to learn how to assess others and to adjust their reactions. Another theory is that a toothy smile often is a visual signal of submissiveness, given that the jaws are usually drawn backward as opposed to the forward thrust of a "grrr" sound and related facial expression.

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Since laughter is seen and heard by others, it works wonders as a social bonding tool. In this case, the baby chimp is laughing as its mother tickles its stomach. The researchers suspect that bonobos, like chimps and humans, also benefit from this type of bonding, and have very flexible facial expressions and vocalizations.

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So far, observations of chimps show they are always honest laughers, meaning that the sounds function as true signals of joy. People, on the other hand, are notorious for fake laughter. We can smile and laugh as though we are happy, even when we're not. There is, however, a complex twist to chimp laughter: what elicits happiness in some might not in others. "I've seen adolescent males (chimps) who sometimes exhibit bullying behavior, laughing softly while they are picking on another chimpanzee, who is usually not enjoying the interaction," Bard said. "When the victim gets annoyed enough to try to stop the bullying behavior, then the adolescent can respond with greater laughter, which is even more annoying!" "So the laughter is 'joyful,'" she said, "but the adolescent finds picking on another chimpanzee, and even their attempt at retaliation, to be something that brings the adolescent some joy."

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Studying the origin of laughter and smiles could help researchers better understand disorders such as autism. This condition is characterized, in part, by difficulties communicating via such signals, and in forming relationships with others. The research also helps us to better understand the abilities of non-human primates, and our evolutionary connections to them. As this image and the one before it show, there's not much difference between a chimp "laugh face" and the typical expression of humans as they enjoy a good guffaw.