AboutZoos, Since 2008


Ori­gins of team­work found in our near­est rel­a­tive the chimpanzee

pub­lished 21 March 2013 | mod­i­fied 07 March 2014

Chimps groomingTeam­work has been fun­da­men­tal in humanity’s great­est achieve­ments but sci­en­tists have found that work­ing together has its evo­lu­tion­ary roots in our near­est pri­mate rel­a­tives — chim­panzees.

A series of tri­als by sci­en­tists found that chim­panzees not only coor­di­nate actions with each other but also under­stand the need to help a part­ner per­form their role to achieve a com­mon goal.

Pairs of chim­panzees were given tools to get grapes out of a box. They had to work together with a tool each to get the food out. Sci­en­tists found that the chim­panzees would solve the prob­lem together, even swap­ping tools, to pull the food out. The study, pub­lished online on 20 Feb­ru­ary in Biol­ogy Let­ters, by sci­en­tists from War­wick Busi­ness School (WBS), UK, and the Max Planck Insti­tute for Evo­lu­tion­ary Anthro­pol­ogy in Leipzig, Ger­many, sought to find out if there were any evo­lu­tion­ary roots to humans’ abil­ity to coop­er­ate and coor­di­nate actions.

This study pro­vides the first evi­dence that chim­panzees can pay atten­tion to the partner’s actions in a col­lab­o­ra­tive task, and shows they know their part­ner not only has to be there but per­form a spe­cific role if they are to succeed
Dr Ali­cia Melis, Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor Behav­ioural Sci­ence, War­wick Busi­ness School »

We want to find out where humans’ abil­ity to coop­er­ate and work together has come from and whether it is unique to us.

Many ani­mal species coop­er­ate to achieve mutu­ally ben­e­fi­cial goals like defend­ing their ter­ri­to­ries or hunt­ing prey. How­ever, the level of inten­tional coor­di­na­tion under­ly­ing these group actions is often unclear, and suc­cess could be due to inde­pen­dent but simul­ta­ne­ous actions towards the same goal.

This study pro­vides the first evi­dence that one of our clos­est pri­mate rel­a­tives, the chim­panzees, not only inten­tion­ally coor­di­nate actions with each other but that they even under­stand the neces­sity to help a part­ner per­form­ing her role in order to achieve the com­mon goal.

These are skills shared by both chim­panzees and humans, so such skills may have been present in their com­mon ances­tor before humans evolved their own com­plex forms of col­lab­o­ra­tion.”

The study, revealed in a paper enti­tled Chim­panzees’ (Pan troglodytes) strate­gic help­ing in a col­lab­o­ra­tive task, looked at 12 chim­panzees at Sweet­wa­ters Chim­panzee Sanc­tu­ary in Kenya, which pro­vides life­long refuge to orphaned chim­panzees, who have been ille­gally traded as pets or saved from the ‘bush­meat’ trade.

The chim­panzees were put into pairs, with one needed at the back and one at the front of a sealed plas­tic box. Through a hole the chim­panzee at the back had to push the grapes onto a plat­form using a rake. The chim­panzee at the front then had to use a thick stick and push it through a hole to tilt the plat­form so the grapes would fall to the floor and both could pick them up to eat. One chim­panzee was handed both tools and they had to decide which tool to pass to the part­ner. Ten out of 12 indi­vid­u­als solved the task fig­ur­ing out that they had to give one of the tools to their part­ner and in 73 per cent of the tri­als the chim­panzees chose the cor­rect tool.

Dr Melis said: “There were great indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences regard­ing how quickly they started trans­fer­ring tools to their part­ner. How­ever, 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.

This study pro­vides the first evi­dence that chim­panzees can pay atten­tion to the partner’s actions in a col­lab­o­ra­tive task, and shows they know their part­ner not only has to be there but per­form a spe­cific role if they are to suc­ceed. It shows they can work strate­gi­cally together just like humans do, work­ing out that they not only need to work together but what roles each chim­panzee has to do in order to suc­ceed.

Although chim­panzees are gen­er­ally very com­pet­i­tive when try­ing to gain access to food and would rather work alone and monop­o­lise all the food rewards, this study shows that they are will­ing and able to strate­gi­cally sup­port the part­ner per­form­ing their role when their own suc­cess is depen­dent on the partner’s.”

NB: This study was approved by the local ethics com­mit­tee at Sweet­wa­ter Sanc­tu­ary and rel­e­vant author­i­ties in Kenya. The chim­panzees were never deprived of food and water was avail­able at all times. They could choose to stop par­tic­i­pat­ing at any time.

(Source: WBS news release, 19.03.2013)

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