Monkeying around in Belgian zoos brings girls out on top
A female bonobo has been named "the world's smartest ape" after beating chimpanzees distracted by male rivalry in a contest between two Belgian zoos, whose results took scientists by surprise.
The chimps, generally a more aggressive, male-dominated species than bonobos, were expected to take the title.
But the winner turned out to be a non-dominant female named Djanoa who showed proof of uncommon patience and perseverance, said Jeroen Stevens, a primatologist with the Royal Society of Zoology of Antwerp.
Or, maybe she just liked nuts more than the others, he added.
"Now the real research begins" on personality and social order and .. snack food preference in the monkey world, he said.
The match this summer was organised "above all as a game", said Stevens.
It pit the bonobo team at Planckendael Zoo in Mechelen against the chimp team at Antwerp Zoo, both in Belgium's northwestern Flemish region, just as the latest incarnation of the Planet of the Apes movies was to hit big screens the world over.
The initiative meant to draw attention and raise funds for a campaign aimed at cutting down on monkey hunts in Cameroon, where "bush meat" is often considered a prized delicacy.
Inspired by a popular Flemish quiz show, "The Smartest Person in the World", the contest put the two closely related species through six tests in which the apes had to use rudimentary tools like branches to extract nuts or oranges from hiding places.
Chimps do this in nature, to pry out ants or termites to eat. They also use stones to open nuts but bonobos, reputedly less dexterous, had never been seen doing this in the wild, Stevens said.
What's more, the chimps' handlers had trained them on the labyrinths ahead of the contest whereas the uninitiated bonobos were at first afraid of the games.
What Stevens hadn't banked on was a political struggle in the chimp troop, where two younger males were challenging the dominant member of the last decade.
With such primordial concerns, the agitated chimps forgot about the "human" challenge as the focused Djanoa came first in four of the six tests while only one male champ won a single game, Stevens said.
Bonobos are considered more peaceful than chimps, though less is known about their group structure other than it seems female dominated and they are readier to use sex to resolve conflict than chimp-type fighting.
And in both species -- which share 98 percent of their genes with man -- "the females were more gifted when it came to using tools," the primatologist said.
But Stevens warned it was dangerous to generalise about an entire species -- "the same way it would be to draw parallels between man and monkeys."
(c) 2011 AFP