Scottish scientists create chimp ‘dictionary’

Researchers have known for a long time that chimps communicate with each other, but no one had taken the time to make a detailed analysis of specific behaviours before. Now a new study by Scottish scientists should add an extra layer of meaning to your next safari park visit.

Catherine Hobaiter and Richard Byrne from the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at St Andrew’s University led the study, which was published in the journal Current Biology. They and their team observed 80 chimpanzees in Uganda’s Budongo Forest for 18 months, recording more than 4,500 instances of gesturing. They focused on non-playful movements to rule out the possibility of irony, and from studying their data were able to compile a guide to the meaning of 66 gestures. These gestures were consistently used by different chimps in different settings and appeared to have the same meaning in all cases.

Some of the meanings they discovered were that a chimp raises his or her arm to indicate that they want something, and taps another chimp to tell them to stop being annoying. Makes sense. They also found that chimps use multiple gestures for the same meaning during what the researchers perceive to be ‘important social negotiations’, perhaps to emphasise their point.

With their guide to chimp communication to hand, the scientists plan to expand on their research to find more detailed information about whether gestures are varied according to sense and how well chimps pick up on context clues.

Image credit: Catherine Hobaiter.

Diane Shipley