Chimpanzee Groups Have Unique Cultures, But People Could Be Destroying Them

Research finds that human activity may be contributing to the loss of cultural behaviors among chimps.

Most people know that chimpanzees, some of the closest living relatives of human beings, are extremely intelligent. It’s less well-known that different communities of chimpanzees have unique cultures ― meaning they exhibit socially learned behavior that get passed from generation to generation.

And new research has found that human activity, including human-induced climate change, may be killing chimp cultures.

“What we mean by ‘culture’ is something you learn socially from your group members that you may not learn if you were born into a different chimpanzee group,” Ammie Kalan, a primatologist involved the study, told The Associated Press.

For example, New Scientist notes there’s one chimp community that uses moss like a sponge to soak up and drink water ― a behavior not seen in other groups.

In a study published Thursday in the journal Science, researchers looked at 31 behavioral traditions among 144 chimpanzee groups across Africa. They found that in areas with heavy human activity like logging or road building, the animals were less likely to exhibit these kinds of behaviors.

A chimpanzee mother and baby.
A chimpanzee mother and baby.

A fragmented landscape makes it harder for learned behaviors to spread, and some human activity may force chimps to live in smaller groups, where less social learning is likely to occur, primatologist and lead study author Hjalmar Kuhl told the AP.

Climate change may also play a role, since it alters chimpanzee habitats and thus affects the animals’ behavior. 

“For example, nut production is strongly dependent on weather conditions,” researchers wrote in the study. Since climate change makes the availability of nuts less consistent, it also increases “the potential loss in nut cracking behavior over time.”

The findings suggest that when it comes to conservation, it’s important to consider individual cultures ― not just overall species populations.

“Each population, each community, even each generation of chimpanzees is unique,” primatologist Cat Hobaiter told The Atlantic. “An event might only have a small impact on the total population of chimpanzees, but it may wipe out an entire community — an entire culture.”

And that consideration isn’t just limited to chimpanzees. Animals like whales, dolphins and orangutans have also displayed evidence of cultures.

Hobaiter, who is not one of the study’s authors, told The Atlantic it’s important to remember that not all types of human influence are equal. Clear-cutting trees, for example, obviously has a much greater impact than people obtaining food from forests in a sustainable way. She emphasized that any efforts to protect wildlife must happen in cooperation with the people who reside in the area.

“Long-term conservation approaches are only going to be effective through the support and leadership of the local communities who live there,” she said. 



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