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Posts Tagged ‘chimp’

Photo: Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage.
Above is a chimpanzee in the Chimfunshi wildlife sanctuary in Zambia, where an influencer chimp began a tradition of wearing a blade of grass in the ear, a style that continued after her death.

I’ve been thinking about social influencers and whether I can identify contemporary influences that have affected what I do. I know that if someone describes a book in a way that makes it sound like my kind of thing, I go immediately to my library’s website and reserve it. In another example, my behavior is hugely influenced by articles on the latest Covid research. And I’m always joining boycotts to help a worthy cause someone is promoting.

So I thought it was interesting to learn how creatures other than humans do influencing — from silly behaviors to life-and-death behaviors.

Natalie Angier at the New York Times begins with a chimpanzee. “Julia, her friends and family agreed, had style. When, out of the blue, the 18-year-old chimpanzee began inserting long, stiff blades of grass into one or both ears and then went about her day with her new statement accessories clearly visible to the world, the other chimpanzees at the Chimfunshi wildlife sanctuary in Zambia were dazzled.

“Pretty soon, they were trying it, too: first her son, then her two closest female friends, then a male friend, out to eight of the 10 chimps in the group, all of them struggling, in front of Julia the Influencer — and hidden video cameras — to get the grass-in-the-ear routine just right.

” ‘It was quite funny to see,’ said Edwin van Leeuwen of the University of Antwerp, who studies animal culture. ‘They tried again and again without success. They shivered through their whole bodies.’ …

“Julia died more than two years ago, yet her grassy-ear routine — a tradition that arose spontaneously, spread through social networks and skirts uncomfortably close to a human meme or fad — lives on among her followers in the sanctuary. The behavior is just one of many surprising examples of animal culture that researchers have lately divulged, as a vivid summary makes clear in a recent issue of Science. …

“ ‘If you define culture as a set of behaviors shared by a group and transmitted through the group by social learning, then you find that it’s widespread in the animal kingdom,’ said Andrew Whiten, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, and the author of the Science review. ‘You see it from primates and cetaceans, to birds and fish, and now we even find it in insects.’

“Culture ‘is another inheritance mechanism, like genes,’ Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University, who studies culture in whales, said. ‘It’s another way that information can flow through a population.’ … Genes lumber, but culture soars. In 1980, for example, an observant humpback whale discovered that by smacking its tail hard against the water, the tiny fish on which it preyed were prompted to ball up into tidy packages fit for comparatively easy capture and consumption. The enhanced hunting technique, called lobtail feeding, quickly spread along known lines of humpback social groups, aided, researchers suspect, by the cetacean talent for acrobatic mimicry among members of a pod. Today, more than 600 humpbacks are lobtail feeders. …

“Sperm whales likewise used crowdsourcing to outwit Ahab. In a new study examining whaling logs from the 19th century, Dr. Whitehead and his colleagues determined that when New England whalers first started hunting a naïve population of sperm whales in the north Pacific, they were essentially harpooning fish in a barrel, harvesting untold gallons of the fine spermaceti oil contained in the whale’s distinctive top hat of an acoustical organ. In just three to five years, however, long before the whalers had made a dent in the whale population, their hunting success rate had plunged by nearly 60 percent. …

“Some differences between animal tribes make sense only if viewed through a cultural lens. Liran Samuni, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, and her colleagues have been following two neighboring groups of bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The home ranges of the chimpanzee-like apes overlap considerably … but there is a salient distinction between them. Once or twice a month, bonobos supplement their vegetarian diet with meat, and when these two troops turn carnivorous, they seek out different prey. One group goes after anomalures, which resemble flying squirrels, while the other hunts small antelopes called duikers. ‘No matter where they are, even when the group is together, they maintain the preference,’ Dr. Samuni said. …

“Peter Richerson of the University of California at Davis, who studies the coevolution of genes and culture in humans … is particularly impressed by recent research showing that animal migrations, long considered the essence of mindless instinct in motion, are, in fact, culturally determined. ‘Mountain sheep have to learn their migrations from other sheep,’ he said. Whooping cranes are long-distance migrators, and when their numbers declined so precipitously that there were no adult birds to teach young birds the route, conservationists stepped in and used ultralight airplanes as whooping crane tutors. Even farm animals can be repositories of cultural wisdom, as ranchers discover when they precipitously sell off their entire herd.”

More at the Times, here.

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John sent me this heavenly video from a Public Broadcasting show called “The Human Spark.” Do watch it. It isn’t long.

It highlights research with both chimps and toddlers, showing what is apparently an innate impulse to help others. Interestingly, whereas the chimp will pass you something you are reaching for and stop at that, a toddler will go above and beyond — and seem to enjoy it.

All of which suggests to me that if you want to be around people who are truly human, hang out with the ones who like to help others.

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