Digging for termites — also referred to as termite fishing — is an important task for chimpanzees looking for a tasty snack.
But learning how to fashion the right tools and master the best techniques can be difficult for a young chimp.
Thankfully, there’s help.
According to a new study co-authored by researchers at Franklin & Marshall College in addition to Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Miami, expert diggers often teach young, inexperienced chimpanzees how to harvest termites in areas where it’s especially difficult.
“What we found is that where termite fishing is more complex and hard to learn … mothers are demonstrably more willing to share with their kids essentially to help their kids learn,” F&M associate professor of psychology Elizabeth Lonsdorf said.
The research, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sheds light on how these important traditions are passed on and hints at the evolutionary origins of complex cultural abilities in humans.
Researchers, including Lonsdorf and 2015 F&M graduate Madison Prestipino, studied chimpanzee communities in the Goualougo Triangle, Republic of Congo, and Gombe, Tanzania. Both chimpanzee communities had different ways of harvesting termites, and with that came varied levels of difficulty — “just like you and I eat rice with a fork and our Asian friends eat it with chop sticks,” Lonsdorf said.
In Republic of Congo, where termite fishing is more complex, mothers were more likely to help by giving their offspring their digging tool or even splitting it in half so both could simultaneously dig.
In Tanzania, mothers were more likely to reject their offspring, sometimes even throwing up an elbow or swatting at their babies when asked for their tool.
The research shows chimpanzees not only have the ability to teach, they modify their helpfulness depending on the complexity of the task.
By observing this behavior, Lonsdorf said, we get an understanding of how information is handed down through generations. It’s similar to the way human culture has evolved, Lonsdorf said.
Humans, she said, aren’t the only animals capable of teaching, she said.
Prestipino called the research opportunity “incredible.”
“Attending F&M and becoming involved in research like this really prepared me for success in the field of non-human primate research,” she said.
Prestipino now works at a non-human primate research lab at the University of Pennsylvania.