Chimps Invent Improved Stick Technology to Catch More Termites

By Eliza Strickland | March 4, 2009 10:24 am

chimpanzee brush toolA particularly clever band of chimpanzees living in one area of the Congo basin have found a better way to fish for food in termite mounds. Zoologists have long known that chimps eager for a tasty termite snack use a short stick, which is thrust into the termites’ nest. The insects bite on the intruding probe and are then extracted and slurped down [AFP]. But chimps living in an area called the Goualougo Triangle in the Republic of Congo have been observed crafting more complex tools that increase their haul of insect morsels.

Instead of using a simple pointed stick, lead researcher Crickette Sanz says these chimps modify their tools by making a special brush tip. To make their rods, the chimps first picked some stems from the Marantaceae plant and plucked off the leaves. “They then pulled the herb stems through their teeth, which were partially closed, to make the brush and they also attended to the brush by sometimes pulling apart the fibres to make them better at gathering the termites,” Dr Sanz added [BBC News].

Researchers recorded the behavior, which they describe in a new article in the journal Biology Letters, by setting up remote cameras near termite nests. After observing the chimps’ trick the zoologists tested the brush stick and the unmodified stick for themselves and were surprised by the difference in effectiveness. The brush stick was four times more likely to result in a catch, and the average haul was 4.9 termites compared with 0.27 termites with the unmodified stick [AFP].

Interestingly, the behavior has only been observed in chimps living in the Goualougo Triangle; chimps elsewhere fish for termites with less efficient pointy sticks. The apparent absence of the more advanced tool use in populations in eastern and western Africa suggests that it is not an innate skill found in all chimpanzees. Instead it seems that the Goualougo primates are learning the crafting techniques from other chimps [BBC News]. Sanz’s team wants to continue studying the chimps of the Goualougo Triangle to see if they have other clever tricks, but she says the group is threatened by development and disease. “Just as we are learning about these exciting new complex tool behaviours, the chimps that are showing us these behaviours are under danger from logging, poaching and Ebola,” she explained [BBC News].  

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Image: Biology Letters

  • cacs

    Love the BBC video! I wonder if female chimps are more adept than males at fashioning the tools, since the girl dolphins were more into crafting sponge tools than their boy friends. Maybe there’s no gender difference here and hunger drives both sexes equally. What clever creatures! Scoop up those termites! A new, “organic” form of pest remediation.

  • jhouder

    Oh, God. They’re learning! Invest in cattle prods and anti-chimp technology, people. This is the beginning of the end for humanity.

  • jonny

    wow the chimps are gonna out smart us and take over the world next

  • bobby

    i think they have a ways to go before they take over the world so you shouldn’t worry but everyone should have all ready known that

  • jimmy

    is there even such a thing as anti-chimp technology??? if there is i’ve never heard of it

  • Abu Rayyan

    This is interesting, but it has long been known that other species of animals are capable of learning from one another. For decades, no one has thought of higher animals as being total genetic automatons. The only reason all this is being breathlessly described as “culture” and “complex tools” is that chimps are closely related to us – therefore all this is supposed to have momentous implications for “our place in nature.” In fact, however, people did not evolve from chimps, and all this has nothing to do with human evolution. If you want to know about real culture, examine the Middle Stone Age and Upper Paleolithic archeological record–chimps can’t hold a candle to that, or even to Acheulean culture for that matter–and even if they could, it would mean nothing for human evolution. Under all this is a cultural, not a scientific, agenda–the desire to minimize the differences between people and other species, and to create an amoral animal-like view of humanity.

  • max

    I have noticed for some time that cats teach each other tricks, and one cat can influence the behavior of the other cats in the family. When we adopted Shopska, a calico, we soon discovered that she could open the latch-style doors in the house. Soon, she taught our male cat, Wolfie, to open them. Now, our newest kitty, Bandit, is attempting to open the doors using the same technique as the other two, but he doesn’t weigh enough.

    When we got Shopska, she was already a full grown, two-year-old cat. Her fur was dull, greasy and not particularly clean. Wolfie, on the other hand, was nearly a year old and was obsessively clean. Within six months Shopska was spending more time grooming and looked like a different cat. We had a similar experience when we adopted Bandit; he, too, became a cleaner, better groomed cat. I cannot attribute the increased cleanliness in Shopska to being groomed by Wolfie, as the two of them have never been pals.

    This was the first experience I’ve had living with more than one animal, and it has certainly been interesting.

  • Fintan

    Chimps are smart, after all we are the third chimpanzee, the naked ape.
    Some other species show intelligence that is in at least some ways similar to us apes. The african grey parrott has been shown to have basic but true language abilities. African greys perform better in communication than all other animals excluding man. Ravens and other corvid species show remarkable operational intelligence, in tool making and problem solving ability,even fashioning tools to make other tools.
    Small mammals such as squirrels show prodigeous memory skills ,remembering thousands of spots where they buried nuts. Matriarch elephants have mental maps of their often massive ranges that few if any humans could equal even if they lived their whole life in the same range,elephant brains are 6-8 larger than human brains.
    I don’t want to give the impression that I believe other animal species can equal humans general mental capacities, but other species do have intelligences that we need to study in order to better understand our own remarkable brains.


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