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Chimpanzees Demonstrate Remarkable Intelligence Using Tools

Chimpanzees are known for being clever with tools, but it turns out they actually tend to develop and fine-tune their techniques over the years, researchers reported in a new paper published in the journal PLOS Biology. In Ivory Coast’s Taï National Park, researchers collected video evidence of 70 wild chimpanzees spanning all ages using sticks to extract food over several years. According to them, it has been shown that chimpanzees like all humans can continuously learn from life experiences.

The researchers, led by Mathieu Malherbe of the Institute of Cognitive Sciences in France, set out to determine whether chimpanzees have the capacity for progressive improvement in skills at all, a trait thought by some to have been a key driver of human evolution. The process they found is that young chimpanzees are initiated very early into the experimentation with different grips and motions to imitate their mothers’ stick tool use. Techniques, such as using sticks to extract insects from tight places, take more than a decade to perfect in chimps.

“While they are able to use the different stick tool use techniques, it takes them more than a decade to understand which grip, for which action, for which food,” Malherbe explained. Chimpanzees have to progress gradually in perfecting the skill, which raises the implication that they are not acting via instinct alone and are capable of assessing and modelling their approach through experience.

They add that much future research will still be required in the learning process itself. It is not yet known whether chimpanzees use more reasoning, memory, or simple trial by error when improving their tool use abilities. The role of social learning and teaching in chimpanzee communities is also of priority interest.

Previous experimental studies on nut-cracking by chimpanzees provide some evidence that they learn both by individual exploration and by guidance from others. However, cultural transmission of these skills is hindered by human interference, whereby groups living in closer proximity to humans showed fewer unique traits and behavioral patterns.

These results thus highlight the high cognitive competencies of chimpanzees and therefore make a case for the shared evolutionary foundation of human and chimpanzee intelligence. To this end, understanding how chimpanzees learn and innovate offers a chance to shed light on the evolutionary origins of advanced tool use and cumulative technological progress in our species from our closest genetic relatives.

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