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Chimpanzees Use Rhythmic Drumming to Communicate

By Russell Tenofsky

The Hollywood stereotype of chimpanzees drumming on hollow logs as if they were bongos may actually have some validity. Not only do adult male chimpanzees use rhythmic drumming to communicate with one another, but also individual chimpanzees each have their own signature beats.

Over the course of three years, psychologist Katie Slocombe of the University of York studied 13 male chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda. “I wanted to know why the chimps choose to drum with some pant hoots and not others and whether drumming rhythms were individually distinctive,” Dr. Slocombe told Daily Mail online.

Dr. Slocombe and her colleagues analyzed 293 pant hoots to see what role drumming played in the chimpanzees’ communication. The scientists found that the chimpanzees combined the drumming with pants hoots 75 percent of the time when traveling, 40 percent of the time when resting, and 10 percent of the time when eating.

“The sound they create makes it ideal for long distance communication,” said Dr. Slocombe. “We think drums help coordinate movement and grouping patterns, so advertising to others your location when traveling may entice others to join you, and other chimps may pant hoot and drum back, which may influence where the caller decides to travel to.”

The scientists also found that each chimpanzee seemed to have distinctive styles and signature rhythms. The rhythms were so distinctive and consistent that the scientists’ computer program correctly identified individual chimpanzees 47 percent of the time based solely on their drumming style.

“This shows that rhythmic abilities are not uniquely human.” “We demonstrated that drumming sequences produced with pant hoots may have contained information on individual identity and that qualitatively, there was individual variation in the complexity of the temporal patterns produced,” said Dr. Slocombe. “’We conclude that drumming patterns may act as individually distinctive long-distance signals that, together with pant hoot vocalizations, function to coordinate the movement and spacing of dispersed individuals within a community.”

This amazing display of communication skills, knowledge, and memory must be extremely important when you’re traveling through a gigantic forest, searching for food, and trying to avoid competitors. Not quite cell phones, of course, but certainly effective—and, according to Dr. Slocombe, these communication methods possibly evolved in humans as well.

“This shows that rhythmic abilities are not uniquely human,” said Dr. Slocombe. “Coordinating movement over very long distances might have been why the earliest humans started to drum.”

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