Chimps around the clock

1 minute read

John Noble Wilford reviews recent research on chimpanzee behavior, in the context of last month's chimpanzee behavior conference. It's a nice article; very suitable for classes.

Get this quick anecdote from Matsuzawa's experimental work:

Tetsuro Matsuzawa, a Kyoto primatologist, described a young chimp watching as numbers 1 through 9 flashed on the computer screen at random positions. Then the numbers disappeared in no more than a second. White squares remained where the numbers had been. The chimp casually but swiftly pressed the squares, calling back the numbers in ascending order -- 1, 2, 3, etc.
The test was repeated several times, with the numbers and squares in different places. The chimp, which had months of training accompanied by promised food rewards, almost never failed to remember where the numbers had been. The video included scenes of a human failing the test, seldom recalling more than one or two numbers, if any.
"Humans can't do it," Dr. Matsuzawa said. "Chimpanzees are superior to humans in this task."

The report doesn't include anything really new, but it is a good summary of the kind of current research. My only complaint is the exclusive focus on chimpanzees. It is now clear that many of these interesting behaviors are very widespread among primates -- from tool use by capuchin monkeys to orangutan cultural variability. Understanding these things in chimpanzees will require us to step back away from the particular chimp social context to see the broader scope of their variability.