Jane Goodall’s research was ground-breaking in many ways, but one of her most important discoveries was that chimpanzees possess the ability to use tools. At the time, it was thought that tool use was a defining characteristic of the human species. But shortly after she began studying the chimpanzees of Gombe, Dr. Jane saw them using sticks to fish termites out of their nests. When she reported her findings to her mentor, Louis Leakey, he famously wrote, “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”
Over the last 50 years, primatologists have discovered that the use of tools to “fish” for termites and ants is even more complex than had originally been thought. Chimpanzees have been observed bringing “tool kits,” containing a variety of tools for different purposes, to the nests. For example, some tools are used specifically to perforate the nests of army ants. Breaking nests open by hand tends to result in an aggressive counter-attack by the ants, and may even cause them to relocate the nest. Using the perforating tool results in a less painful experience and allows for the harvesting of the ants to be sustainable. Other tools are used specifically for dipping into the nest, and their size and shape, as well as the technique for ingesting the insects once they are caught, are influenced by the behavior of the insects being harvested. And all of these techniques are influenced by culture, which is to say that they are learned and not determined by genetics and environment alone. They differ from community to community, as each community has its own set of knowledge and traditions.
When we built Young’s Hill, the Young’s provided the funds for us to build an artificial termite mound. The mound is actually hollow and consists of concrete laid over a rebar framework. Stainless steel tubes protrude through the concrete, and we can climb in and attach PVC tubes filled with food treats on the inside. The mound also protects critical irrigation components for the bamboo groves.
Most captive chimpanzees, having been raised outside of the cultures found in free-living communities, do not consider insects to be food. So we stick with what they enjoy – in this case, frozen banana mixed with peanut butter and almond milk.
If you’re impressed with Jamie’s tool-using abilities, vote for her in the Humane Society of the United States’ chimpanzee art contest.