Many animals know everything they need to know by instinct. They don’t need to learn from those around them to grow up, feed themselves, or even communicate with other members of their species. Humans are unique in how many varied and distinct cultures we have. Cultures teach us everything from how to talk, to how we should eat, to what we believe about families, social rules, and what it means to be an adult. The rules of human culture are vast. But we aren’t unique in having cultures. A few other species are also known to transmit knowledge and rules from generation to generation.
Chimpanzees are another species with cultural differences. Researchers have studied chimpanzee behaviors, for example in how they use tools to “fish” for termites, in depth in a few specific locations where chimpanzees live in the wild. But researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany set out to study chimpanzee behavior in many different locations.
The researchers set up consistent methods to record chimpanzee behavior so they could reliably compare similarities and differences across locations.
Chimpanzee “fishing” involves fashioning a tool from a stick that the chimps poke into termite nests to draw out the bugs, which the chimps eat. After carefully observing the techniques chimps used to fish for termites in ten different places, the researchers were surprised to discover that each community has a unique and specific way of fishing.
For example, some chimpanzees lie down on their sides to termite fish, while others lean on their elbow, and those in a third location sit while fishing. In one place, chimpanzees unravel the fibers at one end of their fishing stick to create a brush, and then rest the termite-covered stick on their wrist while they eat. In another location, the chimps don’t make a brush end with their stick but use their mouth to shake the stick when it’s in a termite nest.
The researchers pointed out that the chimpanzee communities live in similar habitats, so ecological differences don’t explain the different fishing styles.
Videos tracking chimps in the wild collected during this project are available to view online. Researchers encourage citizen scientists to contribute to analyzing the collected data to make more discoveries: Chimp and See project
- News release: Cultural diversity in chimpanzees
- Summary of research article: Chimpanzee ethnography reveals unexpected cultural diversity
- Additional reading about culture: A database of human culture asks what in human culture is universal and what varies
The photo shows a bonobo at the San Diego Zoo fishing for termites. Credit: Mike Richey.