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How Chimpanzees Cooperate

By Russell Tenofsky

In an effort to determine the origins of teamwork, a new study shows chimpanzees using tools and cooperating – consciously and deliberately – to solve problems.

Photo of chimpanzees using teamwork to achieve a common goal. 6 chimpanzees sit on a grass field in front of a wood hut and observe a distant object.

Scientists observed 12 chimpanzees at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya to better understand the origins of human teamwork and whether or not it’s a uniquely human ability. They found that the overwhelming majority of the chimpanzees were able to distribute tools and then cooperate with the mutual insight needed to accomplish a shared goal.

(All of the chimpanzees are refugees from the illegal bush meat trade, and all of them took part in the study voluntarily.)

“Chimpanzees can work strategically together just like humans do.”

“This study provides the first evidence that chimpanzees can pay attention to the partner’s actions in a collaborative task, and shows they know their partner not only has to be there but perform a specific role if they are to succeed,” said Dr. Alicia Melis, Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science at Warwick Business School. “It shows they can work strategically together just like humans do, working out that they not only need to work together but what roles each chimpanzee has to do in order to succeed.”

The study involved pairs of chimpanzees cooperating with tools to guide grapes through a sealed box. One chimpanzee was presented with a rake and a stick and needed to intuit the best way to distribute them to extract the grapes. The scientists observed that this one would use the rake to push the grapes onto a platform while the other chimpanzee, positioned at the other end of the box, needed to tilt the box and use the stick to coax the grapes through a hole. They both then shared the grapes they’d extracted from the box.

The chimpanzees successfully figured out they needed their partner to get the grapes 10 out of 12 times and they chose the correct tool in 73 percent of the tests.

“This study provides the first evidence that one of our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees, not only intentionally coordinate actions with each other but that they even understand the necessity to help a partner performing her role in order to achieve the common goal,” Dr. Melis said. “These are skills shared by both chimpanzees and humans, so such skills may have been present in their common ancestor before humans evolved their own complex forms of collaboration”

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