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Chimp swats film crew’s drone
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Chimp swats film crew’s drone

Tuesday, 08 September 2015

A recent incident at Royal Burgers' Zoo shows that chimps are able to plan ahead and use tools as weapons. In an article published in Springer’s journal Primates, Jan van Hooff and Bas Lukkenaar, explain it as yet another example of chimpanzees’ make-do attitude to using whatever is on hand as tools.

The incident happened earlier this year, on 10 April 2015, when a Dutch television crew was filming the chimpanzees' compound from different close-up angles using a drone. The drone already caught the chimpanzees’ attention during a practice run. Some grabbed willow twigs off the ground, while four animals took these along when they climbed up scaffolding where the drone was hovering. This behavior is not frequently observed among these chimps.

Small Chimpansee 2

A twig as weapon

A twig as weapon

Filming started when next the drone flew over. It zoomed in on two chimpanzees, the females Tushi and Raimee. They were still seated on the scaffolding holding on to twigs that were about 180 cm (ca. 6 feet) long. Tushi made two long sweeps with hers – the second was successful in downing the drone and ultimately broke it. Before and during the strike, she grimaced. Although her face was tense and her teeth were bared, she showed no signs of fear. This suggests that she quite deliberately and forcefully struck at the drone, rather than fearfully or reflexively.

“The use of the stick as a weapon in this context was a unique action,” comments van Hooff. “It seemed deliberate, given the decision to collect it and carry it to a place where the drone might be attacked.”

Deliberate and planned ahead

“This episode adds to the indications that chimpanzees engage in forward planning of tool-use acts,” Lukkenaar says, explaining the broader significance of the filmed event. This incident also shows the apes cautiously inspecting the contraption and even throwing it around before they lose interest in it.

According to van Hooff and Lukkenaar, the chimpanzees have never explicitly been taught how to use different tools, but have had ample chance to watch humans handle all kinds of implements. Previous studies at Burgers' Zoo showed that the chimps spontaneously and innovatively use up to thirteen types of tools in a variety of ways, especially utilizing sticks of different sizes. The apes appear to choose the size, shape and weight of the tools with a particular use in mind. Sticks are, for instance, used to gather fresh leaves from overhead branches, while heavy pieces of wood and stones are chosen as throwing weapons.

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