Ditch the GPS! Just Follow that Chimp!

· March 20, 2009

Oh, those clever chimpanzees. They manage to stay front-page news with the tragic, the outrageous, and the comic. First there was the sad saga of Travis the Chimp, who was shot and killed after he mauled a friend of his owner. Then there was the contemptible Washington Post cartoon comparing a dead chimp (Travis?) to the author of President Obama’s stimulus plan. And, most recently, a gonzo chimp named Santino developed an ammo store of rocks to throw at unsuspecting zoo visitors. You’d think maybe chimpanzees want us to pay attention to them.  And maybe we should.

What next?  Well, in case you ever wondered why famous primatologist Jane Goodall never got lost in her years of following chimps around Tanzania’s Gombe Stream Reserve, recent research at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig suggests that chimps and other great apes “keep a geometric mental map of their home range, moving from point to point in nearly straight lines.”  Without compass or GPS, these guys “know where they are going.”  Sans satellite or radio, they seem to have a sort of built-in BioGPS.

Most of us are familiar with the Global Positioning System (GPS), a US space-based radio navigation system that provides positioning, navigation, and timing services free of charge.  GPS receivers are ubiquitous and readily available from your local electronics store. GPS satellites broadcast signals from space that are picked up and identified by GPS receivers on earth.  Each receiver then provides three-dimensional location (latitude, longitude, and altitude) plus the time.

With the aid of GPS, Primatologist Christophe Boesch and colleague Emmanuelle Normand followed the movements of 15 chimpanzees in Côte d’Ivoire’s Taï National Park for a total of 217 days. They found good evidence that chimps chose their routes “using a mental map built around geometric coordinates, as opposed to a navigation style based on landmarks for well-travelled routes.”

Follow that ChimpHave you ever tried to get from Heathrow Airport to King’s Cross via London’s Underground? It takes a little planning to interpret the station-to-station “tube” map, plan your transfers, and then actually get somewhere in urban London.  Paul Garber, a biological anthropologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign suggests that chimps may do similar planning when they navigate tree-to-tree in the wild forests of Central Africa. They appear to optimize their travels between fruit-bearing trees by planning “not just one step in a route, but many, many steps ahead."  A single chimp might visit “15 of the roughly 12,000 trees in its 17-square-kilometre range,” according to Leipzig researcher Boesch. "They are kind of nomads.”

Santino, the pissed-off, rock-throwing chimp at the Furuvik Zoo near Stockholm also appears to be a planner.  He spends mornings before the zoo opens gathering stones and organizing them into neat piles.  Preparing an ammo store suggests that chimps – or, at least, Santino – is planning for future mental states such as anger. This is a cognitive talent once thought to be unique to humans.

Jane Goodall says the only real difference between humans and chimps is our sophisticated language.  Our big advantage, she says, is the ability to communicate with sophisticated spoken language – yet, tragically, we are abusing this power.  The 74-year-old scientist and activist recently made news when she warned that the People’s Republic of China is pressing governments in Central Africa’s Congo basin to sign over forest concessions in return for infrastructure and healthcare aid. 

Unfortunately, with the push for wood and precious minerals in Central Africa leading to massive deforestation, there may not be any trees left to navigate or chimps left for us humans to follow.  No wonder Santino the Chimp is pissed off.

 

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