July 18, 2019

Chimpanzees Have Culture. Humans Are Destroying It.

“Just like humans, chimpanzees have local traditions. Neighboring chimp communities in Uganda, for instance, rely on different tools to extract honey from fallen logs; some use sticks, while others use chewed-up leaves to sop up the sweet stuff. Scientists have observed a slew of other behaviors that they believe to be “cultural,” meaning that these behaviors are population-specific and acquired through social learning: nut cracking, using tools to fish for algae or termites, loudly ripping leaves from branches, throwing stones at predators or intruders. But as Michael Marshall reports for New Scientist, a recent study has found that in the face of human encroachment, chimp culture is disappearing.

For their sobering investigation, researchers tracked 31 chimpanzee behaviors in 144 distinct communities, according to their study published in Science. The bulk of the data was pulled from existing literature, but 46 communities were observed by the Pan African Programme, which studies behavioral diversity in chimpanzee populations. To avoid disturbing the animals, researchers followed them from afar—via cameras, by searching for tools during “reconnaissance” surveys and by searching the chimps’ poop for traces of foods that can only be obtained through tool use. The team also measured human influences, like infrastructure, population density and forest cover reduction.

The results of the study were striking. The researcher found that chimps living in areas with a “high degree of human impact” were 88 percent less likely to display any of the 31 behaviors than chimps residing in regions with the lowest degree of human impact. “However we divided up the data, we got the same very obvious pattern,” Ammie Kalan, study co-author and primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, tells Ed Yong of the the Atlantic.”

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