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Chimpanzees continue learning as adults

It’s a common belief that learning is predominantly an activity for the young, but recent research suggests that adult chimpanzees continue to refine and improve their tool-using skills, marking a significant discovery in the study of both primate and human evolution.

This fascinating insight comes from a study conducted by Mathieu Malherbe and colleagues from the Institute of Cognitive Sciences in France.

The study sheds new light on the parallels between human and chimpanzee learning behaviors.

Observing tool mastery in wild chimpanzees

Malherbe’s team focused on wild chimpanzees in Taï National Park, Côte d’Ivoire, utilizing video recordings collected over several years to observe the primates in action. These observations included 70 chimps of varying ages engaging in the use of sticks to retrieve food.

“Tool use is considered a driving force behind the evolution of brain expansion and prolonged juvenile dependency in the hominin lineage. However, it remains rare across animals, possibly due to inherent constraints related to manual dexterity and cognitive abilities,” wrote the researchers.

“In our study, we investigated the ontogeny of tool use in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), a species known for its extensive and flexible tool use behavior.”

Increasing tool proficiency with age

As the chimpanzees aged, they demonstrated an increasing proficiency in manipulating tools, showcasing more suitable finger grips and more nuanced techniques for specific tasks.

Interestingly, while basic motor skills associated with tool use were well-developed by the age of six, the chimpanzees exhibited significant advancements in their abilities well into their fifteenth year.

This included adeptness in extracting insects from challenging locations and adjusting their grip based on the task at hand, suggesting that the development of such skills is as much about cognitive learning as it is about physical maturity.

“Wild chimpanzees showed protracted development of their hand grip when manipulating a stick as a tool to extract difficult-to-access foods from cavities. While the digits grip became the predominant hand grip used by 5 to 6 years old (weaning age), it only became ubiquitous at 15 years old (adulthood),” noted the researchers.

“In addition, we found that chimpanzees used 6 actions with stick tools to retrieve 8 food types. Adults, but not non-adults, modulated their behavior to use a more appropriate hand grip to fit action requirements (i.e., power or precision). Such behavioral modulation only by adults indicates an improved understanding of tool use problems and their solutions.”

Implications of continuous learning

The study underscores the importance of continuous learning in the animal kingdom, particularly among chimpanzees and other species that rely heavily on tool use.

The ability to learn and adapt technologically into adulthood is not merely a trait observed in humans but is evidently part of a broader evolutionary pattern that includes our closest living relatives.

Lifelong learning in chimpanzees

This ongoing learning process in chimpanzees supports the notion that large brains in hominids – humans and related species – facilitate sustained learning well into the later stages of life.

“In wild chimpanzees, the intricacies of tool use learning continue into adulthood. This pattern supports ideas that large brains across hominids allow continued learning through the first two decades of life,” noted the study authors.

Exploring the depths of chimpanzee learning

While the study provides valuable insights, the researchers acknowledge that more work is needed to fully understand the dynamics of the chimpanzees’ learning processes.

Questions remain about the roles of reasoning, memory, and whether learning primarily comes from personal experience or if it also involves instruction from peers.

These areas are crucial for a deeper understanding of how learning capacities influence the evolution of tool use and cognitive abilities in primates.

Broader evolutionary patterns

The revelation that chimpanzees continue to learn and enhance their tool-using skills well into adulthood not only expands our understanding of primate abilities but also aligns with broader evolutionary theories regarding brain development and learning in hominids.

It highlights the significance of lifelong learning as a key component in the advancement of cognitive and cultural complexities, offering a mirror to our own species’ development.

As research progresses, it will be intriguing to see how these insights affect our comprehension of human and primate evolution alike.

The study is published in the journal PLoS Biology.


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