Chimps use touches and noisy gestures when trying to get another chimps attention, researcher finds

Jan 25, 2013 by Robert Perkins
Great Apes such as chimpanzees share remarkable similarities with humans. Their complex patterns of communication are one example. "These skills underscore the importance of conserving this endangered species before it is too late,” says USC Dornsife Ph.D. student Maureen McCarthy. Credit: Craig Stanford

(—A team led by USC Dornsife Ph.D. student Maureen McCarthy found evidence that chimpanzees are aware of the attention and responsiveness of the chimp they're communicating with, modifying their method of communication to suit.

The research adds to a growing body of work exploring how socially aware chimps are and is continually eroding old notions about what separates humans from their evolutionary cousins.

The chimps McCarthy studied rarely used visual toward other chimps who weren't to them, instead using touches or noisy gestures to get their attention. In addition, if they were able to use a single gesture to communicate effectively with another chimp, they often stopped there—not bothering to gesture further.

"I was interested in whether they flexibly shifted the types of gestures they used, especially when they failed to get a response initially," McCarthy said. "I found that during play, they used gestures flexibly in order to get a response from another chimp and also to help regulate and continue play."

Her study, co-authored by Mary Lee Abshire Jensvold and Deborah Fouts of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University, was published online in in December.

McCarthy is currently studying chimps in Uganda. Readers can follow her blog on the Scientific American website at and at

Though previous studies have also explored whether great apes can use gestures flexibly based on the audience's attention and response, McCarthy's work was the first to do so with apes who can already communicate using .

"Our study was the first to examine the use of gesture sequences in this unique captive chimpanzee group," she said. "It was also one of just a handful of studies to examine how captive communicate with each other, compared to their human caregivers. This was important because it allowed us to study natural interactions among the chimpanzees."

Studies into ape communication explore the boundaries of their self-awareness and have chipped away at traditional notions of what makes humans different from—or superior to—other animals.

For example, ' use of visual communication when addressing individuals who are looking directly at them has been taken as evidence that they recognize that other individuals have a perspective that is different from their own—the "theory of mind" that is considered a must-have in order to be self-aware.

Studies of gesture sequences, such as those by McCarthy, have gained popularity in recent years as scientists seek to understand the full extent of language capability among apes. Among the many questions that remain to be answered is whether apes can flexibly string gestures together to make new meanings the way humans string words together to form new and different sentences.

"My current research at USC focuses on chimpanzees in fragmented forests of Uganda. Whether in the forests of Uganda or in a sanctuary in the U.S., chimpanzees demonstrate remarkable similarities with humans," she explained. "Their complex patterns of communication are just one example. These skills underscore the importance of conserving this endangered species before it is too late."

Explore further: Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

15 hours ago

( —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

Apr 17, 2014

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

Apr 17, 2014

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

Apr 17, 2014

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Jan 25, 2013
What a surprise. They are our cousins (excepting Kevin and his creationist residents friends)
5 / 5 (1) Jan 25, 2013
I notice the same thing happening when I am at a Bar.

More news stories

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

( —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

Plants with dormant seeds give rise to more species

Seeds that sprout as soon as they're planted may be good news for a garden. But wild plants need to be more careful. In the wild, a plant whose seeds sprouted at the first warm spell or rainy day would risk disaster. More ...

Researchers develop new model of cellular movement

( —Cell movement plays an important role in a host of biological functions from embryonic development to repairing wounded tissue. It also enables cancer cells to break free from their sites of ...

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

( —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Impact glass stores biodata for millions of years

( —Bits of plant life encapsulated in molten glass by asteroid and comet impacts millions of years ago give geologists information about climate and life forms on the ancient Earth. Scientists ...