1/17/2020 Staff Writer

Chimpanzee Study Has Implications for Evolution of Technology, Culture in Humans

Chimpanzees that use a multistep process and complex tools to gather termites are more likely to share tools with novices, according to a new study led by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Miami and Franklin & Marshall College.

The research, published Dec. 23 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Lincoln Park Zoo and the Jane Goodall Institute. The study helps illuminate chimpanzees’ capacity for prosocial — or helping — behavior, a quality recognized for its potential role in the evolution of human cultural abilities. 

Beginning with Jane Goodall in the 1960s, researchers have been studying chimpanzee tool use for decades at the Gombe Stream Research Center in Tanzania. The Gombe chimpanzee study is one of the longest running studies of animal behavior in the wild. This year marks the 20-year anniversary of the study of chimpanzees in the Goualougo Triangle, Republic of Congo, where researchers have documented some of the most complex tool behaviors of chimpanzees.

  • Elizabeth Lonsdorf, associate professor of psychology at Franklin & Marshall College, has long studied (and photographed) chimpanzees at Gombe Stream Research Center in Tanzania. Elizabeth Lonsdorf, associate professor of psychology at Franklin & Marshall College, has long studied (and photographed) chimpanzees at Gombe Stream Research Center in Tanzania. Image Credit: Josh Leonard

“While Gombe and Goualougo chimpanzees both fish for termites, we suspected that there might be differences in how this skill is acquired,” said Elizabeth Lonsdorf, associate professor of psychology at Franklin & Marshall College who has long studied chimpanzees at Gombe. “But only after many years of accumulating these data were we able to rigorously quantify these differences.”

Madison Prestipino ’15, a former student of Lonsdorf’s, was a co-author of the research. As a student, Prestipinocoded Lonsdorf’s video footage of Gombe chimpanzees. She documented the transfer of a termite fishing tool from one chimpanzee to another and worked with Lonsdorf on specifying the types of transfer. 

“Primates have always been a huge passion of mine, and being a part of this research at F&M fueled my interest and commitment to this career path,” Prestipino said. She now conducts nonhuman primate research and works in a visual memory lab at the University of Pennsylvania. “I was fortunate to be able to work alongside Dr. Lonsdorf for so many years. She has inspired me as I continue to pursue this field; she’s my mentor both professionally and personally.”

For most wild chimpanzees, tool use is an important part of life – but learning it is no simple feat. Wild chimpanzees transfer tools to each other, and this behavior has previously been shown to serve as a form of teaching. Understanding how chimpanzee tool traditions are passed on over generations can provide insights into the evolutionary origins of complex cultural abilities in humans.

  • Madison Prestipino ’15, Lonsdorf's former student, took her first job as an animal behavior intern at Disney's Animal Kingdom after graduating F&M. Madison Prestipino ’15, Lonsdorf's former student, took her first job as an animal behavior intern at Disney's Animal Kingdom after graduating F&M.
  • F&M Professor Lonsdorf at Gombe, where her data collection is supported by the Jane Goodall Institute. F&M Professor Lonsdorf at Gombe, where her data collection is supported by the Jane Goodall Institute. Image Credit: Elizabeth V. Lonsdorf
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