Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Chimps and Tools

Light blogging this week (busy, busy, busy), but do have a look at this interesting article about chimpanzees, once again, proving themselves to be smarter than we think:

Yet another species barrier has been broken. Chimpanzees have been videotaped with tool kits. Not just sticks, mind you, but three different kinds of sticks for different purposes, some modified (by chewing on the end, for instance) to make them more efficient.

We've known for a while that some other species, like the great apes and crows, use rudimentary tools, but just as a few adjectives are not the same as a sonnet, one stick does not a tool kit make.

I know what I'm talking about. For someone who doesn't do much work around the house, I have a lot of tools. I've always felt that this was a kind of tribute to my evolutionary heritage.

Tool use is a defining characteristic of the human lineage and, I tell those who wonder why I can't use the wrenches we already have to fix the faucets, I'm every bit as human as all the other people I see shopping for pipe wrenches and pipe on Saturday morning.

I have the regular hammers and screwdrivers and electric drills, of course, all of which I used extensively when I tried, over the course of the summer to rehang a screen door. I didn't succeed, but using tools is what makes you human. Nobody ever said you had to be good at it. I also have a variety of tools that are remnants of old habits and interests, like the vintage drawknives I bought on eBay when I was carving yew staves into long bows (a lot easier than hanging a screen door.)

But, no matter what others may say, the point here is not that I have spent a lot of money accumulating a lot of tools that I don't use much any more. The point is that when I'm waiting in the endless line at the home improvement store with the other humans and their tools, it makes me feel like I'm really part of something special, Homo sapiens - the only creature that buys random orbital sanders.

One can't ignore these new tool collecting apes, however. In the current issue of The American Naturalist three researchers have published “New Insights Into Chimpanzees, Tools and Termites From the Congo Basin.” Crickette Sanz of Washington University in St. Louis and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany; Dave Morgan of Cambridge University and the Wildlife Conservation Society; and Steve Gulick of Wildland Security used remote cameras set at termite mounds to get hours of videotape of chimps catching and eating termites.

The chimps in the videos have three tools, a heavy puncturing stick, a lighter perforating stick and a light, flexible fishing stick. A chimp heading to a subterranean mound of termites will bring a strong puncturing stick and a lighter fishing stick. A chimp going to a mound above ground will use a lighter-weight perforating stick and an even lighter one to fish with.


At 10:59 PM, Blogger L said...

and somewhere there's a female chimp saying "We need to call a professional chimp to do that! You'll just break that termite mound again!"



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