A population of chimpanzees at a national park in Africa has figured out how to turn a stick into at least five different tools, according to a new study.
The paper, published in the latest issue of the journal Primates, notes the first report of hunting with tools by a population of chimps in Central Africa. The chimps, located at Doudou National Park in Gabon, have animal experts paying more attention to the cleverness of these tool-wielding tree swingers.
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"Our observations suggest that chimpanzees may have higher cognitive abilities in tool use than previously thought," co-authors Ebang Ella Ghislain Wilfried and Juichi Yamagiwa wrote.
Wilfried, of Masuku University, and Yamagiwa of Kyoto University made the determination after observing the chimps during daily surveys. They found that, for the chimps, a simple stick serves the following five functions:
1- Pounder The pounding seemed to follow a precise beat. Chimps would pound three to four times, pause for a minute, and then repeat the process. The banging somehow helped the chimps to retrieve honey from stingless bees (Meliponula sp.) housed within the cavity of a larger tree branch.
2- Enlarger When placed in a hole, such as the entrance to a beehive, the stick was manipulated to make the opening wider.
3- Dip Stick Chimps use sticks like a utensil, allowing them to eat honey attached to the stick. Chimps love honey so much that they will climb to dizzying heights and balance themselves in precarious positions, stick in hand, all to access the sweet treat. After going through this process, one female chimp "then inserted her right hand into the beehive to extract honey and subsequently licked honey from her fingers."
4- Fishing Rod Chimpanzees place sticks in termite mounds, fishing out termites that cling to the "rod."
5- Poker A chimpanzee at Gabon was seen poking at a small animal, believed to be a mongoose, which had hidden in a log.
Prior studies have found that non-human primates may use sticks as back-scratchers, even putting plant materials on the sticks to "self-medicate."
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This paper only focused on sticks as tools, but chimps can work wonders with a single rock too. Rocks function as nutcrackers, for example. One zoo primate even keeps a stash of rocks handy for pelting humans that annoy him.
The Gabon chimps, however, mostly seem to be focused on using sticks to hunt and to help them to eat once the food item has been obtained.
As the researchers conclude, "Our findings may provide us a new insight on the chimpanzee's flexibility of tool use and cognitive abilities of complex food gathering."
Photo: A chimpanzee with a stick carrying her offspring. Credit: Wikimedia Commons