Article image

Chimpanzees have mastered the art of "termite fishing"

A new study has shed light on the intriguing behavior of termite fishing by chimpanzees, offering insights into their foraging cognition and seasonal dietary preferences.

The research was led by teams from the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) and University College London (UCL) 

Termite fishing

Chimpanzees, known for their intelligence and tool-using abilities, have been observed fishing for termites. The researchers wanted to learn more about this behavior, particularly its timing and motivation. 

“Though we can never read a chimpanzee’s thoughts, we can perhaps start to get an idea of their expectations of resource availability by analyzing the instances in which they arrive at termite mounds and investigate them for fishing viability,” said study senior author Dr. Vicky Oelze.

Nutrient sources

Termites serve as a vital nutrient source for chimpanzees. Despite the availability of other food sources in the wet season, chimpanzees exhibit a preference for termite fishing during this period. 

This behavior is influenced by the dispersal flights of termites, which occur early in the wet season, making them more accessible to the chimpanzees.

Issa Valley 

The study was conducted in the Issa Valley, Tanzania. The team analyzed meteorological data and camera trap footage. The researchers also attempted termite fishing with chimpanzee-like tools and techniques. 

“When I first visited the Issa Valley, I quickly learned that it was more difficult to termite fish than I had expected,” said study co-author Seth Phillips. “It alerted me to the idea that effective foraging for these termite prey might be more complicated than people commonly understand it.”

Success rate 

Of the 1,924 termite fishing attempts recorded, 363 were successful. The success rate correlated with rainfall, peaking when cumulative rainfall was between 50-200mm and diminishing after 200mm. 

This pattern aligns with termite mound activity and dispersal flights, which are predominantly observed in the wet season and reduce significantly after 400mm of rainfall.

Foraging cognition 

“We are currently reviewing camera trap footage of the chimpanzee behaviors at these mounds,” said Phillips. “We want to know how chimps adapt their searching behavior according to seasonal changes.” 

“For instance, do they investigate termite mounds directly after rainfall after a long dry spell? This data could say something interesting about their foraging cognition as related to tool-use.”

Tool use

The team found that chimpanzees were among the most frequently recorded predators at termite mounds during dispersal flights and they often arrived carrying a tool. According to the researchers, the chimpanzees use tools to termite fish because they can, not because they need to.

In some communities, such as Gombe Stream, chimpanzees fish for termites all year, but this activity peaks in the wet season. The experts noted that some year-round fishers may be benefiting from softer soil or more effective toolsets. 

Study conclusion

“In summary, the results of this study indicate that the seasonality of termite-fishing in the Issa Valley is likely driven in large part by the seasonal reproductive ecology of Macrotermes, which is in turn driven by meteorological factors, in particular cumulative rainfall,” wrote the researchers.

“This explanation aligns with the ‘opportunity’ hypothesis of cultural variation in chimpanzee tool use behavior in this case on seasonality. Similar research on Macrotermes reproductive life cycle is warranted at other chimpanzee termite-fishing sites in order to clarify differences in seasonal exploitation of this resource.”

More about chimpanzees and tools

Chimpanzees, our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom, exhibit a remarkable ability to use tools, showcasing their intelligence and adaptability. This behavior not only provides insights into their cognitive abilities but also offers a window into the evolution of human tool use.

Origins and evolution of chimpanzee tool use

Chimpanzees have been using tools for thousands of years. This practice likely evolved as a response to environmental challenges and the need to access new food sources. Tool use in chimpanzees varies by region, indicating a form of cultural learning and transmission of knowledge across generations.

Types of tools and their uses

Chimpanzees demonstrate the use of a variety of tools for different purposes:

  1. Termite Fishing: As discussed previously in this article, chimpanzees use sticks to extract termites from their mounds. They modify the sticks to the appropriate length and thickness, showing an understanding of the task at hand.
  2. Nut Cracking: Chimpanzees use stones or hard wood as hammers to crack open nuts, displaying an understanding of how to use force and objects to achieve a goal.
  3. Leaf Sponges: To access water from hard-to-reach places, chimpanzees create sponges from leaves, demonstrating their ability to use materials creatively.

Social learning and cultural variations

Chimpanzees learn tool use primarily through observation and imitation, a key aspect of their social learning. Young chimpanzees watch their mothers and other group members use tools and mimic these behaviors. There are distinct regional differences in tool use, suggesting a form of culture among chimpanzee communities.

Understanding human evolution

Chimpanzee tool use has significant implications for understanding human evolution. It provides clues about the cognitive capabilities of our common ancestors and the evolutionary roots of human tool use. The study of chimpanzees continues to reveal the complex nature of their intelligence and problem-solving skills.

Conservation and future research

As we continue to study chimpanzee tool use, it’s vital to protect these primates and their habitats. Conservation efforts are crucial for the survival of chimpanzees, allowing further research that could unravel more about our evolutionary history and the cognitive capabilities of primates.

In summary, chimpanzee tool use is a compelling demonstration of animal intelligence and adaptability. Through their diverse use of tools, chimpanzees offer invaluable insights into the cognitive abilities of primates, shedding light on the evolutionary links between humans and our primate cousins.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day