Yesterday, she decided that the cloth headbands we provide as enrichment are better suited as waistbands. Interestingly, she isn’t the first chimp to have this innovative idea! As caregiver Kelsi showed us last month, Annie has been wearing headbands around her waist for years.
It would be tempting to suspect that Honey B learned the behavior from Annie, which would be great evidence of cultural transmission between groups of chimpanzees. In the wild, chimpanzee communities across Africa have cultural traditions (i.e., their own ways of doing things) that spread among individuals via social learning. Chimpanzee cultures are rich and fascinating, but may be disappearing. This year, scientists published a paper about the negative effects that human activity may have on the cultural diversity of wild chimpanzees. As chimpanzee numbers dwindle and we degrade and fragment their forested habitats, their capacity for culture catastrophically decreases.
Although the process of cultural transmission certainly exists among groups of captive chimpanzees, it has been difficult to document and is seldom reported. In the case of Honey B and the waistband, it seems unlikely that she learned it from Annie. Annie only wears the improvised belt for a few days or weeks and then ignores them for the rest of the year, and she had already stopped wearing this summer’s edition before Honey B and her friends arrived from Wildlife Waystation last month. It is possible that one of the many videos we showed to the new trio features a scene of Annie sporting the headband-waistband look, but it’s more likely that they both just have similar taste in enrichment and utilize what we give them in novel ways.
With that being said, it will be interesting to see if any behaviors do cross over from one group to the next! Chimpanzees are brilliant and creative, and never stop surprising us.