Chimpanzee communication involves many overt and unmistakable expressions, from eardrum-piercing pant hoots to boisterous dominance displays, but much of what they convey is far more subtle. This morning, as the chimps were being invited to shift enclosures for breakfast, the routine ground to a halt. Negra would not come inside from the greenhouse, even when presented with bowl of peanuts. Jody kept glancing over her shoulder. And Annie sat in the doorway from the playroom, clearly interested in breakfast but unwilling to commit.
I looked towards Burrito. Sitting quietly on a bench with his hands folded in his lap, he was the picture of calm.
Or was he?
Here’s why chimpanzees would be terrible at poker. As soon as they had a good hand, their hair would stand on end and their skin would be riddled with goosebumps, betraying their excitement. Piloerection, as it is known, is the ultimate tell, a dead giveaway for a chimps’ internal state.
Behind Burrito’s otherwise calm demeanor was a simmering cauldron of testosterone, adrenaline, and pent up frustration (due in large part to Jody’s tumescent backside). The chimps could read this from a mile away. The fuse had been lit and everyone was waiting for the bomb to go off.
They were, of course, correct in their assessment, and we soon took a five-minute break from serving breakfast while Burrito rattled the cage doors and occasionally lunged at anyone nearby. Once he got it out of his system, everyone finished shifting and we got on with the day.