Some forms of chimp communication are universal. Chimps the world over food grunt, make play faces, and pant-hoot. While there are variations to all of these behaviors based on culture and geography, they are all part of a common chimp language.
But chimps also develop communicative behaviors all their own. My favorite example is Foxie. When Foxie adopted her first troll doll, she was extremely protective of it and became visibly upset when “Trixie,” as we named her, wound up in the hands of someone else. But over time, she began to trust us with her dolls, and at that point she actually started to use her troll dolls as a way to signify that it was time to socialize with her. While I really have no idea what is going on in Foxie’s mind, I like to think of it like this: She knows that we would never take her doll away from her, so when she hands one to us, she knows we have to stick around. You have my troll, so until I ask for it back, you’re all mine. At least that’s my guess as to how it started. Now we don’t even question it – it’s just how things work around here.
When we come to work in the morning, Foxie passes us a troll to say hello and starts to do her playful acrobatics. And when we are locking up for the night, she often drops a troll on our heads from the loft, as a way of saying: Just five more minutes, then you can go. When she’s done with us, she asks for it back and she goes on with her day.
And it’s not just humans on the receiving end. When Foxie wants to play with Jamie, she will run up, stomp her feet, and hand a troll directly to her.
Jamie knows that this is an invitation to a playful game of keep-away. Some of the best play bouts between Foxie and Jamie, like this one from earlier in the week, involve a troll doll (you’ll see that Jamie has it tucked into her pelvic pocket).
But sometimes Foxie goes from playful to genuinely concerned about her doll, and at that point Jamie knows to give it back immediately. No one likes to see Foxie upset.
Who knew that a weird fad toy from the 60’s (sorry, Foxie) would become such an important part of a chimpanzee’s life?